“An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it”. Talent and people are the foundation stones of a successful agency. DDB co-founder Bill Bernbach knew it and decades later, after one of the most difficult years the network and indeed the industry has known, the agency’s current leadership know it too.
For the DDB North America leadership team, looking after its people and helping them grow is key to their strategy for 2021. When Justin Thomas-Copeland joined as North America CEO in July last year, he plunged straight into a change agenda. As the network was running to figure out (and help clients figure out) the Covid reality live, he and the leadership team knew that they also needed to use the 2020 shake up as a chance to strengthen the agency, to allow it to respond to clients’ changing needs but in a sustainable, healthy way.
And so, Justin, along with North America CCO Britt Nolan and CSO Eric Zuncic have been working closely over the past six months to do just that. That process started with people – auditing the talent and capabilities they really had, identifying gaps and finding ways to up-skill and educate their existing employee base on live client work, with the help of mentors and specialists from across the Omnicom holding company.
“One of the first things we did was a real audit to connect with what our talent base in DDB North America is. So, we did a complete review of everyone in our organisation across the entire region, bar no one,” says Justin. Similarly, they’ve also been making sure they really understand the capabilities across Omnicom and know who they can draw from. “As an example, we've got one client, whose strategy and North Star is to become a connected commerce brand. So, we've brought in people from our commerce group in Omnicom, who are subject matter experts that are working now with our business leads. And after four months the business leaders have got a new perspective on the business, they've got a new vocabulary, they've got a new skill set. Give them another six months, they will be even deeper.”
When people and talent are so foundational to a business, a challenge like Covid-19 makes it more important than ever to make sure that they’re not just growing and learning, but that they’re well and happy in themselves. Justin says that as well as auditing skillsets, as CEO it’s been important to check in with people on a personal level, to make sure that people are able to take holidays, rest and regroup when needed.
In tandem with this focus on training and capabilities, the team has also been setting out the network’s approach to combining brand thinking and creativity with data. It’s an agenda that is rolling out at a global level too, but Justin’s background with precision marketing and data make him the ideal person to drive that forward across North America. He joined DDB from OPMG Health, part of Omnicom Precision Marketing Group – and when he was in that previous role, he and Eric had many conversations about how to be both creative-first but also data-driven.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that the creativity and brand thinking that DDB has is and always will be central – but data can help the network uncover new places and opportunities for that creativity.
Says Eric: “I want to be crystal clear that we have no intention in selling strategy for strategy’s sake, the goal is to get to a creative output that changes human beings’ behaviours in the marketplace. So, pumping it through different pipes, or having smarter targeting of a shitty message isn't going to get us anywhere.
“The goal of our strategy group is to use all these new tools and resources and data to cast a broader net, get to better insights more quickly. And to turn those into creative opportunities for Britt and his teams, that is our job, it is not to outsmart our clients, it is not to sell them strategy projects, or digital transformation projects, it is to find new ways to drive their business with creativity.”
Britt says that this has a knock-on effect on how the agency works with clients, pushing his creative team to be more proactive and curious. It’s opening up conversations with clients about everything from loyalty programmes to employee training. As businesses surf ever-changing tides, they need partners that understand the brand to help them navigate disruption at all levels. “It has a huge implication for the cadence and the way that we interact with our clients. It's becoming much more proactive and the canvas is so wide,” he says. “It's a big shift, and I would say Covid was a tremendous accelerant for that.”
“I think for us, that's when things get exciting, right?” Eric chips in. “I think for most big traditional TV-focused agencies, that stuff scares the shit out of them, because they don't know what to do with it. Because our foundational element is around how our brand behaves. That's how we build brands. That's exciting to us. The playground just opened and there's 15 new rides.”
But with this vast new canvas comes increased responsibility. “You've got to have a real sense of accountability for their business,” says Justin. “You've got to really hold your hands up and say, ‘I want to be accountable for those ideas, follow them through measure them’.”
Ironically, as Britt points, the deep, structural work that the leadership team has been doing has been made easier thanks to the Covid reality. All three live in different cities and pre-Covid, this kind of intensive work would involve a lot of disruptive travel and time away from home. Instead, the ‘silver lining’ of remote work is that they’ve been able to spend more time working together.
“We just jumped in and had a very aggressive learning agenda to really get to know everybody and what was going on. It’s the only way to do it - when you crank up the intensity, and you all just jump into the foxhole together, you get to know each other really quickly,” recalls Britt. “It's kind of like the old-fashioned way… combined with the new-fashioned way, I guess!”
As the agency steps into 2021, they’re also looking forward to all that work and reorganisation paying off. And alongside all the deep, structural stuff, they hint that they’ve got some exciting creative work that’s getting ready to launch too.
“Honestly,” says Eric, “the thing I can't wait for is, now that those doors have been kicked open, for creativity to come to life across all these different businesses and industries. I can't wait for the world and our clients to experience the impact of unexpected creativity in unexpected places.”
But also, the leadership are hoping that life gets a bit more manageable, happy, healthy and fun for their people too. Just as people are at the core of their strategy, the mood of their people might be the best measure that they’re growing in the right direction.
“[I’m looking forward to] good times, happy vibes. I think you need smiles on our faces and to see the energy through the work definitely. It’s about worrying about the next person, a bit of humanity. You know, we need to just get back to trying to find that happy place and having fun while we go about our business.”