Brands need to have a sense of purpose: JWT CEO Tamara Ingram

JWT’s Tamara Ingram talks about how she dealt with the responsibility, why diversity is important, and how brands can navigate the new media environment


J. Walter Thompson global chief executive officer Tamara Ingram. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
J. Walter Thompson global chief executive officer Tamara Ingram. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Tamara Ingram’s appointment as the global chief executive officer of J. Walter Thompson earlier this year broke the proverbial glass ceiling. She had her work cut out as she took over the reins from Gustavo Martinez, the former CEO who was sued by an employee for allegedly making sexist and racial comments. Ingram previously served as chief client team officer at WPP, responsible for overseeing all of the group’s global account teams, which represented a third of the group’s $20 billion revenue.

In India to meet employees and clients, considered to be one of JWT’s “most important offices globally”, Ingram talks about how she dealt with the responsibility, why diversity is important, and how brands can navigate the new media environment. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You probably had little time to prepare for your new role at JWT. What was that transition like?

In all honesty, it’s an extraordinary honour to be asked to be the CEO of J. Walter Thompson and Co. It is the oldest advertising agency in the world. And when you think it’s a great privilege, it’s (the job and the responsibility) only a joy. What I saw is a wonderful company with a great opportunity that had done extraordinary things for many of our clients over the years. This is a great gift and, in a way, I see leadership about bringing out that magic of the gift.

Following the lawsuit, there must have been concerns and questions from employees as well as clients.

All companies go through a period of change. And in any change, the first task is to stabilize and to make sure that you ensure that people who are there are feeling the best they could possibly be. This is true of all relationships—clients and stakeholders. But interestingly, it (the lawsuit) enabled us to think about talent.

Is talent a focus area?

We are a business where talent is absolutely everything. The only thing we have is the quality of our people, and they are the ones who come up with the ideas. So, we put in a number of things in place to find the right talent, to deliver extraordinary work on behalf of our clients. And when I think of India, our India offices and company is probably one of the best in the world. I attribute that to the fantastic mix of talent and leadership. In India, 50% of our leaders are women and so we truly reflect the community we represent. It won 140 new pieces of business in 2016 and we expect to grow at 20%, which is faster than the GDP. I am focusing on a number of things, and anyone who runs a business, which is about intellectual property and extraordinary ideas, has to focus on talent. And more importantly, I am most interested in diversity of talent and diversity of thinking. We need to reflect the modern world, we need to have ideas that are mobile first. And therefore, we need people who are from diverse backgrounds.

What are blind recruitments that you have started in some of the offices?

What you want to recruit for is potential and not for where people have come from. We have started blind recruitment in some of our key offices. What that means is that you take off their universities, their gender and you literally look at the potential and how people respond. Also for the people conducting these interviews, we are starting workshops on unconscious bias training. Because we all have our biases. I notice in India, there’s a business school bias. So, (it is about) removing any bias related to where people come from and focus on the potential. In doing so, we are going to hire people more divergent in thinking and from different places. On the whole, in companies, you tend also to recruit from the same pond, from the same universities from the same group of people. Mind you, it’s a tough task. But the idea is to recruit people from different backgrounds, from high schools, people who would not normally have access to us.

How do brands navigate the new media landscape?

There is a paradox in how brands operate in today’s world. On one hand, the things that have always been true, remain true—brands need a point of view, a stance, they need to be true to themselves. In today’s world, that is even more so and even more authentic to their being, the inside needs to reflect the outside. And I believe that brands need to have a sense of purpose because more and more consumers, the millennials in particular, are looking beyond the bottle (product), looking for doing good in real action, they need to have a sense of service and utility as well as basic benefits. We need to serve those communications on those needs, utility needs, purpose needs, as well as a benefit, wherever consumers are. So, mobile if they are on mobile, SMS, social, sometimes in-store, recognizing that people want things in a much more instant gratification way. The thing about millennials and the generation after them, which is absolutely fantastic, is that they understand marketing. It’s in their bones, they have been brought up with it, so they can smell straightaway, puffery.

As a global head, you see work from all over the world. Have you spotted any regional trends?

I think human truth on the whole is pretty universal. It can be expressed in a more flamboyant way in some countries as compared to others, depending on the culture. But the one thing I really admire, we did a wonderful Nike cricket advertisement which had magic and the vibrancy and the love of cricket in a way that captured the energy of India. It was universal and loved everywhere. The way relationships and the depth of these relations is expressed here, is very emotional. Enabling that emotion is more likely to come out in Indian work rather than in British work. I don’t want to own up to types here, but there are certain habits… the work from Latin America tends to be very visual and witty. While all countries seem to capture the big human truths, flavouring it (with local culture) adds authenticity and that is what enables work to travel. Ironically, the more authentic and close it is to the community, I think the better the work travels.

The Nike ad you mention won a lot of awards. But the agency lost the account to W+K. In that sense, critics claim awards are a poor measure of what the campaign is actually delivering for the brand.

I wouldn’t think of it like that. The account is globally aligned to Wieden + Kennedy. We did extraordinary work and I am very proud of the work. Nike is less interested in cricket and therefore it was less relevant to work with us. We were very lucky that there was a moment that they were very interested in cricket.

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