Justin Thomas-Copeland, CEO of DDB North America, speaks to Addison Capper about how Unexpected Works, the network’s new campaign and vision, is informing his leadership of the region
“It's more than a campaign. It manifested in a campaign but you've got to see it as a mindset, as intent and as an ambition. If we get this right it will go to the heart of our culture and to the heart of our operational model.”
Justin Thomas-Copeland, CEO of DDB North America, and I are discussing Unexpected Works, a campaign and evolved brand promise that the global agency network has devised for itself, the overarching message being that creativity is at its most powerful when it’s unexpected.
“It's given a real focus to the creative unlocking of the business,” adds Justin. “It's given our people a real licence to rock up to clients with new thoughts. If I was an account director again in an agency that says 'Unexpected Works', you are going to have to step out of my way because I'm really going to live that, I'm going to take licence and know that I'm in a safe place where I'm going to be encouraged to do that. I'm not going to have to swallow the Lean Six Sigma or the 'learn fast book' of all of those sort of cliches, I'm actually in a place where they're asking me to do that: they're asking me to bring the unexpected, they're asking me to surprise and delight clients, they're asking me to ask questions internally about how we do things and if we can do it differently or better.”
“Darla is a creative leader and a fantastic people coach,” says Justin. “Auro has done big brand work on clients like Oreo but also ecosystem work on things like Apple at Work, and created identities and experiences and product design. We're bringing a complement of people with a whole raft of new skill sets and those are going to be the trigger points and the sparks of Unexpected Works because they're going to bring on unexpected behaviours, mindsets and experience. We're going to put that all together and North America will be different and act differently.”
Justin’s work on the people side of the business hasn’t only involved executive level hires. He understood that to truly be an agency of unexpected creativity, every person within it needed to live and breathe that idea - not just the leadership team. “We needed more focus and the short story is that we actually closed down the HR teams in our biggest offices of Chicago, New York and San Francisco,” he says. That might sound counterintuitive to a need for more focus on a business’ people but the reality is that Justin and the team at DDB replaced it with something laser-focused and much more stringent.
They levelled it up to a regional team; a team that has “two sides of one coin”. The first side is talent attraction and acquisition. “We have to find new people in different places, in different ways, through different partnerships. If you just leave that to the offices, you're going to get it in three, four or five different ways. They're just trying to fill bums on seats. Agencies are always trying to hire people but it doesn't always really ladder up to strategy and a new strategic focus. So we did that, then we have recruiters that are servicing those individual offices.”
Justin maintains that each office doesn’t lose anything with this new regional approach. There are still people there looking to fill those bums on seats, just with a very clear talent acquisition strategy. “That strategy is two words: no duplicates,” he says. “And that tells you everything you need to know about what we're trying to do from a people standpoint. It means that the diversity that we're looking for is not just age, disability, ethnicity, gender / sexual orientation, which are deeply important, but it's also looking at professional diversity, socio-economic diversity, it's looking at people that are coming from different walks of life. It's looking at broader ethnicity, cultural diversity; we're looking really wide now and you can't do that in a consistent way if every HR team is just trying to fill bums on seats. That level up on talent acquisition was really important.”
The other side of the coin is talent retention and growth. Underneath the retention and growth team are HR generalists, training managers and people that are serving each office and working with the local CEOs, to ensure that singular offices don’t lose anything from the new setup and there’s a proper strategic focus. But the real deal-breaker for Justin in the whole new setup is the appointment of Nikki Lamba, DDB’s global head of diversity, equity and inclusion, as the head of the North American people team. “A lot of agencies talk about DE&I and people and talent but we put that function right in the heart of North America,” he says. “I asked Nikki to create a whole new playbook around talent attraction, talent retention, and diversity is going to run through that because she runs it, that's what she does and thinks about every day.
“Marty spoke about KPIs [in this interview also on LBB],” adds Justin. “Some of our KPIs are, of course, retention and churn rates, but also acquisition rates - as we go to get people, how successful are we in bringing them in? We get asked a lot in the interview process about how we are doing relative to competitors. We're making sure that we're getting insights across the industry: what is motivating people? How are we sharing that? How do we do that in real time? That helps us seal the deal and get the right talent, it helps us to think about our own internal proposition. We've got evolved KPIs for talent that really reflect that we want to be an agency that does rather than just says, and I think all of that ladders up perfectly to Unexpected Works because they're all very surprising strategies. No one has done that, to have DE&I running people across the whole region and to clean up the teams to a regional team. But we're happy to innovate because we know it's a different day and time.”
The hire of Jatinder as DDB North America’s first chief data officer is a statement of intention for DDB the importance it is placing on data capabilities to underpin client work. “Data and technology are important components in service to creativity,” says Justin. “They fuel creativity. They are a means to an unlock, they are a means to a new canvas. Jatinder and that hire were really important because I felt like we needed more of that. If you’re going to be a future forward modern agency then you've got to be aware of your context. That means that someone like Jatinder can come in and help us contextually understand the brand, the industry and audiences better. He can bring fuel and hypotheses to the table that maybe we didn't have before.”
Jatinder and Justin had previously worked together at Omnicom Precision Marketing Group, so each party knew the pedigree and work ethic of the other. “He knows that I do change, that is real,” says Justin. “I don't believe in change for posturing or change around the edges. I knew that he could bring a lot of that to the table and that would be fuel for creativity. He knows how to work with not just strategists, but also creatives and media agencies. The media / creative connection is really, really important, ever more. He is a perfect bridge to that. He can talk media KPIs, media insights, he understands optimisation, he understands DCO (dynamic creative optimisation), he understands operational tagging, he understands how to get mileage out of media and bring that to creatives in the form of insight. We need that bridge and translation function.”
Part of the bridge has involved bringing TrackDDB, DDB’s Canada-based precision agency, into the US and opening it up to US clients. Jatinder is working with TrackDDB managing director Paul Tedesco on the project. “They now work and divide and conquer,” says Justin. “From a future forward agency standpoint, you've got to bring insight, you've got to use data. We live in a connected world, you pick up your phone every day, you are in a connected world. And that's why we talk about creativity and connection coming together because those are the types of skill sets that open up opportunity. That's going to be our filter for Unexpected Works by bringing together creativity and connection, and opening up this world and opening up creativity and canvases and insights. Jatinder and that role was critical for us to do that. He is client-facing across our most important clients already, he's working with CMOS and CEOs. All of it is at the service of creativity, not an end in itself.”
St. Louis creative agency Rodgers Townsend, which is part of the DDB network, also recently appointed Eric Nelson as its director of media, a signal of the gap between creative and media narrowing and an important piece of integration for the entire region, according to Justin. “Eric brings integrated thinking and a mindset of creative and media coming together. He is a preeminent thinker in that regard,” says Justin. “Even when we're not working with a client in the RT office, we can talk to them, we can get insight. They're great for new business so we can have connected thinking. And again, as we think about our lens of Unexpected Works, Eric is a perfect embodiment of that and RT is a perfect proposition of that. They are a connected creative agency, end-to-end, working on some great clients, we're really excited about what they are doing.”
Justin also singles out DDB San Francisco for performing well, specifically so in the market of Silicon Valley, where clients are building out in-housing units faster and bigger than anywhere else. “They're much more into project based relationships and flexibility,” says Justin. “The talent war is ridiculous out there because all of the platforms and tech are there. John [McCarthy, president of DDB SF] has got a very simple filter for Unexpected Works, which is around agile creativity. We aren’t just a legacy AOR agency anywhere anymore, but even more so in San Francisco we are the agile creative partner. John is reinventing processes, looking at things like brand connection and engagement sprints with clients, new ways of working, co-creation, really embracing the market and the context that he's in. So he is really stepping to clients in new and exciting ways, and again it rolls perfectly back to Unexpected Works, because they think they're going to talk to a legacy outpost office in San Francisco that's only doing network business, and suddenly, they've got a team of 60 sharp shooters who are reinventing agency processes. They're autonomous but connected. You could almost argue that if you think about DDB in 10 years from now, it's probably going to look more like San Francisco than anywhere else.”
“These are all exciting things that give North America different canvases and different energies,” adds Justin. “And they all are laddering up very seamlessly to Unexpected Works. It's the philosophy of wanting to be an agency network that is changing, that pivots, that listens, that learns. I think when you do that is when these natural things just happen. We didn't have a workshop that said, 'let's reinvent each office to roll up into Unexpected Works'. When it's a mindset and you're progressive and forward-thinking, you end up in the same place. We're really excited about North America. We're really excited about our offices having their voices. And we're super excited about how it all sits quite effortlessly under the big umbrella.”