Donna Tobin is global chief marketing and communication officer at DDB Worldwide, a role that she brings over 20 years of agency, brand, marketing, public relations and communications expertise to.
Prior to joining DDB in May 2021, Donna was EVP of marketing, communications, events at partnerships at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AKA the 4A’s) where she led the organisation’s new vision, mission, marketing and communications strategies, and the re-imagination of the 4A’s virtual thought leadership events. She is a current member of DDB’s Global Executive Leadership team, DDB’s Global Creative Council, has served as a New York Chapter Co-Chair on the Women in Toys, Licensing and Entertainment board, developed and launched a Women’s Leadership Network and mentoring program while at Kantar, is an active mentor as part of Omnicom’s OmniWomen program, the 4A’s Vanguard Mentorship program, as well as the MAIP Mentorship program.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Donna about the intricacies of an effective marketing plan for a 10,000-strong global advertising organisation, how she channels her college cheerleading days into the role, and why she revels in the daily commute to work.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you?
Donna> I grew up on a cul-de-sac in Connecticut, went to Catholic middle and high school, played tennis on my high school team, and was also a cheerleader, which typically doesn’t surprise anyone I share that with. I was always the one who tried to bring friends and people together.
I lost my dad at a very young age and my amazing, wonderful, strong-willed mother raised me alone as my two older siblings were away at college. She was the ultimate example throughout my life of strength, tenacity and possessing an ever-present ‘can-do’ mentality. I am an optimist to the core because of her. She passed away many years ago, yet I carry so many things she taught me close to my heart and tap them on a daily basis. She also constantly called me ‘the peacemaker’. To this day, I am passionate about championing teams and breaking down silos to strengthen relationships and… keep the peace.
LBB> How did you feel about advertising?
Donna> I LOVED advertising at an early age and I am a huge pop culture junkie. When I was in high school, I plastered my walls with fashion and music ads that inspired me. I loved broadcast jingles, MTV videos and album covers. My brother, who tragically passed away last year from cancer, was a music collector and I would spend hours looking at album artwork admiring typefaces and the overall creativity of each album cover. I became a college radio station DJ and created a head of promotions role for myself to get local businesses interested in sponsoring the non-profit radio station. I recorded ads, public service announcements and loved the whole ad break piece almost as much as I loved the music I played during my shows. Music has always been and continues to be one of my passions which also strengthened my love for the entertainment and advertising industries.
LBB> What was the most important moment in putting you on your career path?
Donna> When I graduated from college, my first job was working for a radio station as an advertising account exec. I thought it was a pretty cool way to continue to tap my love for music and advertising and get a real paycheck. I put together ad sales presentations for ad agencies and was able to continue writing and producing radio ads. I was soon recruited to join an ad agency where I was able to work with clients, continue writing, and be involved with the full creative process. It was a pivotal moment and I remember scouring the ad trades that came into the agency weekly to learn everything I could about creative campaigns and ad agencies who were creating them.
LBB> You're coming up to a year at DDB - congrats! It's been quite a year too with the launch of Unexpected Works. Sum up the year for us. What have been some highlights and what are you particularly proud of?
Donna> First of all, I am proud to say I work at DDB and can’t believe it has almost been a year. That is the best part. When you are doing what you love, the time should go by quickly and be fun, right? There have been so many things I am proud of. DDB is truly an incredible agency and every day I am amazed at the brilliant, talented (and nice) people who come together to do unexpected things. The creativity at every level across every discipline is so inspiring. And the launch of Unexpected Works allowed us all to rally around that one simple, yet powerful reimagination of what DDB has always been famous for: creativity being the most powerful force in business. Our vision and mission is clear and we are all united on doing things that are unexpected and effective.
I am also extremely proud of the team I’ve built and the implementation of more streamlined processes to connect us all more creatively and efficiently. I’ve been focused on creating opportunities to galvanise our comms teams around the world by crafting a solid global strategic marcomms plan and also created new comms briefs to strengthen the way teams partner with us. This year, we were able to roll up one, pretty kickass global marcomms strat plan, along with customised regional strat plans that are foundationally based off of our global plan. This allows us to implement increased consistency of narratives and unite around key strategic priorities.
We are strengthening our thought leadership programs to shine a spotlight on the many amazing leaders throughout DDB Worldwide, and have launched and reimagined several such as DDB Talks, and will soon launch DDB Thinks, DDB Creates, and DDB Reacts to amplify those voices in new ways. We’ve upleveled our DDB.com homepage and global social media game with the implementation of a clear strategy, creation of a brand guidelines document, an Unexpected Works portal and global content asset packages for our regional teams to use. Uniting and inspiring over 10,000 staff across 149 offices in 63 countries via a sound internal comms strategy is always our ultimate goal. I channel my cheerleading days to internally and externally champion for all the truly incredible work that comes out of our DDB Worldwide network of amazing agencies and supremely talented staff.
LBB> You have touched upon this but how is Unexpected Works providing a guiding vision for your comms plan for DDB Worldwide?
Donna> Since day one, DDB has been famous for finding unexpected creative solutions that work in an intelligent and visually arresting way. We wanted to illustrate the power of Unexpected Works through a visual expression that constantly reinvents itself – literally unexpected. We were inspired by the incredible diversity in the creative output of the network – a collective of brilliant and talented individuals who express themselves differently. Unexpected Works is at the foundation of everything we do. How we think. How we brainstorm and what DDB has always been famous for. We’ve always been in the business of delivering ideas that transform businesses. That’s why Bill Bernbach’s ‘creativity is the most powerful force in business’ has always driven us.
Specifically, at DDB we’ve always known that it’s by tapping into the collective emotions that different people all share, delivering emotion at scale through creative ideas that defy apathy and overcome idiosyncrasy, that we can create what we’ve called ‘emotional advantage’. That’s the mechanism by which our creative work – the truly unexpected ideas, executions and insights that we’ve always strived to create – works. Unexpected Works tells the story of both DDB’s past, and creates a north star to refine and guide us in our future; the kind of work we’ve always strived to create, and the reason why we’ve always done so, pointed at the priorities and opportunities of the next century.
LBB> Can you speak a bit about your approach to communications for a huge, global agency like DDB. How do you begin to wrangle something and roll it out across the world? Is a fair amount of flexibility on a regional and local level also important?
Donna> Wrangle and roll, I think I’ll coin that! Seriously, we wrangle and roll every day. I am particularly proud of reimagining and strengthening the role of marcomms within DDB and by building and uniting our comms teams around the world. We are comms leaders responsible for all DDB internal and external comms, so to me, it was a pretty simple concept to take our own advice and ensure we were communicating not only with our staff and externally, but with each other more efficiently. The key to uniting our teams has been frequent communication through monthly meetings, and importantly, a global Microsoft Teams group where we share info, decks, press releases, content ideas, copy and creative assets on a daily basis.
Most importantly, it was mission critical to craft a global marcomms strategy, partner with and cascade that out to our regional comms leads so we could deliver one, cohesive and integrated marcomms plan. Beyond North America, our comms teams in EMEA, Asia, India, Australia/New Zealand, and Latina are truly amazing partners, wonderful human beings, and all embrace opportunities to chat and share ideas. We genuinely support each other even though many of us have never met in person. The biggest challenge is always the time zone differences so we all try to be flexible about who gets up bright and early versus who has to hop on to a Teams call late at night.
LBB> What is your overall vision for DDB for your second year in the role?
Donna> My vision for this year is to focus on strengthening team connections even further to ensure our global strategy comes to life and build on the momentum we’ve had across the globe. I am always looking for new ways to raise the bar and infuse unexpected creativity and innovation into everything we do. Always learning. Always innovating and pivoting when needed. My leadership philosophy has always been to lead with trust, transparency, passion and tenacity. I don’t believe you can have a strong team or partnership whether in business or personally without trust or transparency.
And this year, I am really excited about our reimagination and relaunch of DDB’s Four Freedoms, originally authored by advertising legend and former DDB chairman Keith Reinhard: the Freedom to Be, Freedom from Chaos, Freedom to Fail, and Freedom from Fear. These are our unique DDB cultural differentiators and have never been more important as we all begin to return to the office across the world. We will roll out and lean heavily on these Four Freedoms and empower our staff at all levels to embody them. Empathy, trust, inclusion, humility, and drive are behaviours underpinning our unique Four Freedoms and we are encouraging everyone at DDB to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable to these values and behaviours. We will message the Four Freedoms throughout the year in ways that are meaningful and inspiring for our staff. And yes, of course, there is a Freedom-themed playlist!
LBB> You're also on DDB's Global Creative Council, which I think is cool. What do you, as the comms lead, add to that group and why do you think it's important to have a comms representative in it?
Donna> Over the past six months, I have been partnering with our global chief creative officer Ari Weiss to restructure who is on the Global Creative Council (GCC), ensuring diversity and gender balance. We are also working to improve the way in which we connect our creative leaders to evaluate work to prepare for awards season. The role of marcomms in a creative agency is to ensure we are in lock step with creative teams throughout key stages of new work and campaigns, and importantly prior to the work being launched externally or submitted into an awards show. Our role in partnership with creative teams is to be aligned with the strongest press narratives in order to elevate the work in the eyes of reporters to help make the work famous. We also need to have an intimate familiarity with creative campaigns and case films, not only for press opportunities, but also for general award submissions, new business pitches and to share breaking campaigns internally with staff via internal comms newsletters and to amplify on DDB.com and across our social media handles. Partnership and involvement with the GCC is so key to our collective success in promoting and celebrating our best creative work.
LBB> Generally, do you think the advertising industry does a good job at advertising itself? Why?
Donna> That is such a great question and always makes me smile as you would think agencies would be amazing at advertising themselves, yet it is kind of analogous to a cobbler’s kids not having great shoes. In some cases, agencies put marketing themselves last, with all their energy and best creative efforts focused on client work. I was brought in by our global CEO Marty O’Halloran who is a solid believer in the need for agencies to market themselves. It is so incredible to have a leader who believes in and fully supports marcomms as a critical component to the success of an agency and who shares the view that marcomms is an enabler of revenue-generation. Our marcomms initiatives are also key to internal culture building as we are constantly informing teams of what’s going on across the network. We are always looking for ways to elevate our messaging internally to current staff and externally to press, prospective clients and recruits to make DDB, our current clients, our creative work and our thought leaders incredibly famous. And to do that, the role of marketing, communications and PR is critical.
LBB> Prior to DDB you worked at the 4A's, which is such an iconic and important institution in the States. What lessons did you take away from that experience?
Donna> While at the 4A’s, I really enjoyed working with agency CEOs and CMOs at all agencies and across holding companies. That role was truly a hybrid role which tapped my years of ad agency account management experience, along with my marketing, comms, PR, and client-side product, brand, event and sponsorship management experience. I was fortunate to partner directly with 4A’s CEO Marla Kaplowitz and lead the 4A’s repositioning, rebranding and new values work in addition to reimagining the way the 4A’s delivered events virtually as a result of the early days of the pandemic. It was awesome to partner with Marla [Kaplowitz, president and CEO], our senior leadership team and all the talented 4A’s practice leads on key DE&I initiatives. Together we launched new webinars, events and thought leadership written pieces, but most importantly, we focused on elevating the importance of ad agencies and the unique value and creativity they bring to spark growth on behalf of their clients. The diversity of thinking and creativity of agencies is something to truly be celebrated.
I also led the Agency Comms Committee while at the 4A’s which enabled me to roll out initiatives that helped the ad industry in partnership with all of the top chief marketing and comms officers across all agencies and holding companies. Those connections led me to be recommended for my current role at DDB, and while I am still connected to Marla and my former colleagues at the 4A’s, my career has come full circle being back on the agency side. It’s so energising creatively.
LBB> Are there any lessons that you wish you'd learned earlier in your career?
Donna> While I’ve had absolutely incredible leaders and colleagues throughout the years, I wish I reached out to more senior level mentors for more frequent advice at an earlier age. We are all fortunate to honour the legacy of Phyllis Robinson, DDB’s and the United States’ first female copy chief who paved the way for strong female leaders everywhere, especially for females in the ad industry.
Also, several years ago while at WPP’s Kantar, I launched a Women’s Leadership Network and mentoring program to help foster connections and strengthen the voices of some of the most amazing and brilliant women I’ve ever known. In addition, I was fortunate to have been part of a female leadership program with Charlotte Beers who was one of the first female ad agency CEOs. She was incredibly inspiring and I wish I had met her and read her book earlier. She unlocks fascinating insights about one’s role in the family, with siblings, and things you inherently learn super early in life that shape your values as a leader, which you can harness to help strengthen your voice at an executive table. Those insights were so simple, yet so powerful. I am a huge proponent of empathetic leadership and mentoring programs and I mentor several people through the OmniWomen’s Mentoring program, as well as the 4A’s Vanguard and 4A’s Foundation MAIP mentoring programs. Mentoring is beyond rewarding and I always try to find time to offer advice to those who reach out to me.
I have three daughters now in the business, one works within an in-house marketing team and the other two at ad agencies.Throughout my career, I’ve always worked hard to set a good example for my daughters as my mother did for me. At home and in business, I strive to actively listen and provide unbiased advice. I will say, it has at times been really challenging balancing being a mother who is present and active in my daughters’ lives, while being an energetic, empathetic leader and resource for my teams to lean on. I have found you have to find and draw on double the energy, but it’s there, for sure, when you are determined and need it. I encourage our daughters and those I mentor to keep their personal wellness a top priority and to find things that recharge their own batteries so the battery is full when they need it most. I also encourage them to never hesitate to reach out ‘early and often’ to leaders who inspire and support them so they can start carving out their professional ‘Mount Rushmores’ - people who are always there, solid as a rock providing honest, inspiring, and sometimes hard-to-hear advice. It is a great exercise and pretty challenging to only pick the four people you’d imagine carving out in a mountain of rock and list the reasons why they made that list.
LBB> Outside of work, what's inspiring you right now?
Donna> Well, anyone who knows me well knows that music inspires me. Loud music. All kinds of music. A friend of one of our daughters just gave me a digital music mixing board and when time allows (which is not much these days), I am learning how to master that mixing board so I can channel my college radio station DJ days. Sadly, the pandemic has limited travel for all of us, yet I am very much looking forward to travelling more to unique places to recharge and be inspired by new surroundings.
And of course, my family always inspires me. With everything going on in the world these days, spending time with family and friends is truly the greatest gift and not one moment should ever be taken for granted. Life is so precious and too short for some. On a happy note, we will be planning a wedding for one of our daughters and we are all calling that our ‘creative side hustle’ with all the experience planning. It will be a full production so we are definitely tapping our girls’ business skills when we have our FaceTime meetings to discuss the overall wedding vision and logistics right down to Excel sheets for list making and budgeting…ha ha!
Another thing that inspires me, and I am not kidding, is my daily commute into the city. As the pandemic was hitting, we moved out of NYC into a small town on the Jersey shore. When I go into the office, I take a 38-minute high speed ferry right into downtown Manhattan. It brings me great joy to begin and end a work day like that. The spray of the water, the sunrises and sunsets, commuting home with my husband who is my very best friend, connecting about our days, talking about life, whatever the topic may be while cruising by the Statue of Liberty, all give me energy and inspire me creatively. It never gets old. We also catch up on reading, carve out time to write, or sometimes I just pop in my AirBuds, close my eyes, listen to some good tunes, and take in a few long, slow breaths filled with massive gratitude.