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How the Alchemy of the Unexpected Allows DDB to Span the EMEA Region’s “Chasms of Culture”


DDB EMEA president Glen Lomas explains to LBB’s Alex Reeves how unexpected backgrounds, models and skills blend to strengthen creativity across the network

How the Alchemy of the Unexpected Allows DDB to Span the EMEA Region’s “Chasms of Culture”
Glen Lomas’ whole career has been at DDB. And he’s lived its culture from day one. When he first started at DDB London in 1995 he received a book of Bill Bernbach quotes. He devoured it. “It was brilliant. He was a sort of Hemingway of ads.” 26 years on Glen is president of DDB for Europe, Middle East and Africa and he stands by the network founder’s truth nuggets. 

One that particularly stands out in today’s context is: “Memorable never emerged from a formula.” Just a few weeks ago the global agency network launched Unexpected Works, a campaign and evolved brand promise that DDB has launched to refocus its goals and ethos. It’s central message being that creativity is at its most powerful when it’s unexpected, or in the famous B of DDB’s words, not emerging from a formula.

Having been immersed in DDB’s approach to creativity for two and a half decades - working first in the UK, then for 10 years in South Africa, before taking up a series of regional network management roles - Unexpected Works feels true to DDB’s ethos going back to Bernbach. “Unexpected Works is true to what he believed and what our entire company is based on,” he says. “So, I don’t think Unexpected Works is new.”

The difference now, Glen stresses, is that rather than just feeling that it works, the industry is able to back that hunch up with facts, figures and behavioural studies. He rattles off Ehrenberg-Bass, Les Binet and Peter Field - familiar sources of some of the research that’s given scientific credence to Bernbach’s musings. “Now we can demonstrate that creativity does work.”

The fountain from which unexpected creativity flows, Glen considers, is based on the hundreds of unique people he’s encountered in his DDB career. “There’s no cookie cutter type of person that works at DDB,” he says. “We have all sorts of people in our agencies from unexpected backgrounds, with unexpected talents and unexpected skills. And it’s that weird, wonderful alchemy that means you get more interesting ideas than if you were all born in the same place - which has never been the case at DDB.” 

Translating that into hiring policy and finding those unexpected people is something that Glen thinks is “the most fascinating part”. In Europe, it’s staggeringly complex. “It varies enormously from country to country - the prevalence of talent and the market dynamics in each,” he says - making European talent sourcing a knotty but exciting problem to solve.

Glen’s stint as chairman and CEO of DDB South Africa exposed him to a continent of talent that’s been ahead of global content trends for years. “The most incredible talent was there,” he says, with a particular knack for shooting video on phones and staging activations. “That was the only stuff that was going on there and now we come to a time where we have to shoot everything on phones, everyone’s creating their own content.” While some agencies might be on the lookout for that kind of creative talent now, Glen finds himself thinking “I saw this in Africa ages ago.”

“I don't think there's actually ever been a better time to look for talent in different places. And people are realising they can be creative in different ways,” he says. 

Not that DDB’s only interested in hiring self-made TikTok stars. The network needs people to grease the gears of its business as well. “It's one thing to have a good idea, it's quite a different one to sell it,” says Glen. “We still need those people that can really make people believe, people that inspire trust. And you only get trust by earning it.”

It’s that fostering of trust that feeds into why Unexpected Works require talent from the less obvious talent pools the industry fishes in. “We want to make the people that work at our agency as representative of the people that we're creating work for as we humanly can. That is what we strive for.”

Glen looks back on the “doyens of the advertising age,” like his beloved Bill, suggesting that they often mirrored their clients - the agencies were made up of similar kinds of people to the brands they worked for. Now an agency has to work differently, he considers. “We do still have to gain the trust of our clients (fortunately they are changing and sometimes ahead of us), but also we have to be able to reflect the consumers a lot more. That becomes more difficult because the consumer has never been more varied. The huge diversity of influences means that we have a huge diversity of interests and you can't possibly feel that you're going to ever have enough people to truly understand that. So it's become more and more complex.” 

Add to that complexity the challenge of creating campaigns for brands that speak to human experience from the UK to Turkey, Finland to Nigeria. “The same brands sit across those chasms of culture,” says Glen. “As a brand you have to have a point of view that is relevant to those very different audiences.”

One answer to that is hiring as many different kinds of people as possible, which is evidently a goal for DDB, but Glen believes there’s a lot to be said for creative insight that resonates across borders, even spanning a region as disparate as EMEA. “You can obviously make your communication considerably more tailored, but it's more about what your brand can do to unite those people in common thought and common belief,” he says. “That's where the magic is.”

Glen reflects on many years spent working on Unilever’s ice cream brands with a truth we can all feel. A Cornetto or a Magnum means roughly the same thing to everyone. “In any of those markets it still puts a smile on a kid's face, but how you take that to market is incredibly different in each country.”

The challenge, as Glen views it, is to use the many perspectives in the DDB network to find that uniting factor of human nature and that’s powerful for everyone and then package it up in ways that incorporate the nuance of different human experiences. “That’s what the power of a network is,” he says. 

Utilising the network and constantly looking for talent from different pools has allowed locally relevant agencies such as adam&eveDDB in London, DDB Paris and DDB Unlimited in Amsterdam to demonstrate strength on a global scale.

But Glen reflects on how in the past few years even offices like London, celebrated for its “national treasure advertising” for John Lewis, hasn’t rested on its laurels. He highlights work like Project 84 for mental health charity CALM. “That is something that really is changing culture,” he says. 

Even work with big brands like EA Sports exhibits a spirits of innovation. Glen mentions the Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award winning work for FIFA 21 - “That just feels much more innovative. That is the product of having a very different group of people there in the creative department,” he says.

Even as successful an agency as adam&eveDDB needs to actively push to keep doing the unexpected, he asserts. “If this industry ends up part of the establishment, what is it ever going to offer?”

Glen considers agencies like London as “a model for the others. In any network you have lead agencies people look up to.” An example of this in action is the in-content studio model that Cain and Abel demonstrates in London, which is provoking the thought within the network: “How do we create content studios like Cain and Abel everywhere? We export that model and suddenly everyone's doing it. It's really important.”

Each agency sets its own example to the network as Glen sees it. He loves the NORD DDB team in Stockholm, who he thinks are “incredibly thought provoking” in terms of creative process. “They apply a sort of random fact to every brief there that allows more diverse angles to come up,” explains Glen, without giving too much away, which certainly sounds like Unexpected Works interpreted in one way. 

Other markets could learn from Germany - another strong DDB market - in the respect that it spreads its creative hubs across several centres. Glen notes that you “can’t have a centralised German operation and be relevant.”

The creativity coming out of Poland is, “incredible” in Glen’s opinion, as is that of its neighbour the Czech Republic. Prague is a small but inspiring office within the network that fascinates Glen - it’s also the home of FTW - DDB’s global agency network for esports and gaming, which he considers an interesting benchmark for how a network can grow. “The sort of people who have grown up gaming have a different approach to how they share skills, collaborate with each other,” he says. “It’s much less about managed P&L and more about favours, working together, collaboration. I think that could be the model for how the rest of the network starts to operate to a degree.”

Places like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provide a context that can offer up intriguing lessons for the network too. Glen mentions the monumental projects going on there that sound like science fiction, such as the plans for a “mega city” with a ban on fossil fuels. “There has to be something worth investigating looking at that,” he says. “There's lots of strange opportunities and that is exciting.”

Connecting all these unexpected nuggets of interest with a “crossword puzzle approach,” Glen sees a source of strength for the network going forward. The hope is that all of this forms a virtuous cycle. He’s seen it in motion across the EMEA region, when the agencies have been getting it right, and he wants to accelerate it: “Once you start doing work like that you attract a very different sort of creative mind,” he says. “That talent comes in and does something different, works in a different way, and you get very different ideas out, and then it attracts more and more talent, people that feel that they can go there and experiment. That's what everyone wants to do in this industry.”

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DDB Spain, Thu, 10 Jun 2021 16:25:02 GMT