“It’s amazing, I feel like I’ve been given the keys to a candy shop,” says DDB Aotearoa’s Priya Patel as she shares her thoughts on being announced as DDB Group New Zealand’s CEO
. However, the now creative leader almost didn’t step into advertising having never known that the career path was an option to her.
Born in the UK, Priya recalls that advertising was never something she considered doing, instead she was guided towards paths that were more law, accountant or medicine led. Though, a chance seminar when she was at Oxford University changed all that. “I was recruited on the milk round, you know how they do these things, the bankers and the management consultants and the ad agencies, they will come and present at the uni. I felt like the advertising one was just so much more interesting than all the other pitches and I really liked that it was a blend of creativity and commerce.”
From there she was offered a graduate position with DDB, a role that took her through each phase of the advertising journey from writing a brief to pitching to clients. It’s this experience that has inspired Priya to think about creating an in-schools programme to show pupils what goes into advertising. She explains: “There's so many touch points, but you don't really think about it as this whole enterprise.”
After leaving DDB, she went to Rainey Kelly London – now VMLY&R – an experience which allowed her to work on some of the UK’s biggest finance and shopping brands. Also, and crucially, this role helped Priya explain to her parents what she ‘actually did’ due to the many household names she worked on.
During this tenure she rose to the position of managing director at Rainey Kelly, reflecting on this experience, Priya recalls returning from maternity leave and being given the position being one of her biggest learning curves. “It was both this amazing support and endorsement, all the people I've worked with for a decade going, 'We believe in you. You're our leader' and me going 'Oh crikey, I'm all over the place.' A new mom and I'm trying to learn a new role.
“I think the thing I learnt was, you sort of just got to go with your gut and your instinct. I think being empathetic and listening to the people around you is half the thing. You can't do it alone. I've realised that probably my strongest asset as a leader is my ability to take on lots of different perspectives and get consensus and to bring lots of people on a journey with me.”
Being announced as the CEO for DDB Group New Zealand makes Priya the first female in her position and diversity on the gender and race front was at the forefront of how she is carving out a path for others to follow suit. “I've always thought that advertising is a meritocracy because you don't rise through fixed pay bands, based on tenure. It's just how good you are and what you do and how you actually make things happen. But I think because it's historically been a male dominated industry, and because as humans we are riddled with unconscious bias the cards have historically been stacked against women and people of colour. So I think there's a real opportunity to actively embrace and celebrate diversity.”
She adds that having a strong female prime minister in Jacinda Ardern helps making female leaders a ‘cultural norm’ and creating pathways for others. This led Priya on to contemplate representation and diversity in the advertising industry. Being in a country that is proud of its indigenous Māori roots means that they need to be represented in creating communications too. As it stands, 12% of those employed by DDB New Zealand are from the Pacifica contingent, with the aim for 17% of all to be so. She adds: “Setting some targets for ourselves so that it's representative of the nation, I think is hugely important. Culturally it's a massive part of New Zealand and really fun thing to actually get to know and to try and learn.
“The agency has been on this journey for four years. We've got the learning, programmes and we've got Māori art in our building, and we do all the welcome ceremonies when we moved into our new building.”
As Priya looks to the future in her role, her short-term plan is simple: to carry on and keep the agency’s clients happy, stable and supported. The long-term is to put New Zealand on the global map. “Our position in the world, you're either a rounding error on the end of a global spreadsheet, or you're the hub of innovation and experimentation that works here and can be replicated and scaled around the world. I really saw opportunities in that - how can we make work that is famous? How can we do things that stand out and that the world notices and then if possible be scaled and taken and shamelessly copied and replicated.”
After all, for her: “The nature of how we’re implementing creativity is shifting”, and to be at the forefront of driving that change is an exciting position.