TBWA’s Catherine Harris on Creative Diversity

Catherine Harris is one of a handful of women leading the charge at a New Zealand-based creative agency. The CEO of TBWA\NZ, or the Disruption company, shares her impression of the country’s creative space, how she’s disrupting the market and what it takes to be a cultural engine for 21st century business.


On leading the rankings in the D&AD Awards for NZ Agencies in 2020

Leading D&AD was a really lovely moment for our agency and an amazing reflection on the team we are building and the partnerships we have with our clients. But being the only team to win a yellow D&AD pencil in Australasia and winning in the categories we did, is definitely a reflection of the direction the agency is taking. TBWA\MAKE led the product design element of the winning project and we have a lot more super interesting work on its way. It’s been another step towards some of the very big ambitions we have.  

On being the only woman heading up one of these agencies

It’s a shame, as there are a lot of superbly talented women in the industry and it would be hugely beneficial for the industry and for the work, to see more in the C-Suite. The small numbers of senior female creative talent should be another important focus for the industry. But it has never been more important to call out the absence of Maori and Pasifika talent across the industry.  This lack of representation is a problem that needs action. Diversity across the board makes us and our work better.

On achieving creative excellence

Creative excellence isn’t something you can just achieve, it’s something we work on continuously. Working towards creative excellence is the most exciting, fun, inspiring and the absolute hardest thing we do every day. People often underestimate just how hard pursuing excellence is, let alone creative excellence. Creating the opportunities, creating the ideas, taking the risks and most importantly making sure what we have imagined is made, is really hard work. But it is the greatest work we do and we couldn’t have a better leader and coach of excellence than Shane.

Shane isn’t just our CCO, he is my business partner. This means creativity is at the heart of every business and talent decision we make. More and more we have two streams of work when we are pursuing creative excellence. We of course work with our client partners to deliver creative excellence and excellence in results. But we also have creative projects, products and programmes that we do because we love them, we believe in them, we can commercialise them and then we find a way for them to live in the world. 

On creating the right culture

Our culture is focused on making great work, celebrating this and our people who make it. It’s what we turn up to do every day. The way we partner with our clients and with their people is also a big part of our culture. 

On international trends versus local realities 

We are a really tight network which keeps us well wired into our global community. But we are in a period of upheaval and the world is a messy place right now. Trends are often more fleeting than they have been before. The local reality is that New Zealand has forged more of its own path this year and we have moved back towards our core values. We have a greater appreciation of where we are from, we have unique opportunities and we are more independent.

On life outside the creative space

It’s been a strange year and one where a lot has been asked of everyone. The challenges over the year and WFH has meant work has taken up more time than ever. But it’s come with a lot of lovely upsides as well. Spending time at home, really enjoying and appreciating time with family and friends, walking my dog… a lot… and spending time out and about in New Zealand. I feel very lucky to be here – it’s an inspiring place to live.

On inspiring a new generation of female creatives

This is something I know women who make it into creative departments talk about a lot. The greatest inspiration we can give to female creatives is for there to be more female creatives, in more important roles, making brilliant work. Female creatives will talk to me about wanting space to share their ideas, they want to work on projects that inspire them and they want to bring a different kind of empathy to the work and the process of making. But most of all, female creatives just want to create. They want big briefs, big opportunities, and to make work that is really impactful and really loved. The more we all see this, the more inspired all of us will be.  

On looking ahead

It’s going to be all about partnership with our clients and setting them up to win. We’ve talked for years about the world and rate of change speeding up, and this year has made that time seem like a doddle. Our Clients have much bigger challenges, much less time to solve them and a lot more to deliver. But they also have more opportunities than ever before. In times of disruption, this is where the big shifts happen and the brave bets are made. We are really, really wired into our clients and their business and this partnership is what’s helping us make some big moves with them. 

And of course, the same is true for agencies. We are going to find even more ways to disrupt ourselves, and the rate of change at TBWA isn’t going to slow down. We have to meet this opportunity with broader skilled talent joining our teams, deeper partnerships, more effective and impactful work and by investing in new ways for creativity to shape the world.


This article was originally published in the December/January 2020 issue of NZ Marketing. You can subscribe to the magazine, here.

About David Nothling-Demmer

David Nothling-Demmer is Editor of NZ Marketing magazine.

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