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Trends and Insight

Unexpected Works: Marty O’Halloran on DDB’s Plan to Win

DDB Worldwide's CEO talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about launching a new brand position, gluing the global community together, and turning the network into a talent magnet

Unexpected Works: Marty O’Halloran on DDB’s Plan to Win

When Marty O’Halloran was first offered the position of CEO of DDB Worldwide, he told John Wren that if he was going to take the job, he was going to make changes. And since starting in earnest in August, he’s lived by his word – and brought the 10,000-strong global network along with him.

This week, the DDB leadership has shared that change with the world. Hearteningly, the network has proven its belief in the power of creative advertising by making a creative campaign for itself. 

‘Unexpected Works’ launched with a billboard on a New Zealand sheep farm – a real world product demonstration, so to speak. Who would expect an ad agency to advertise itself there, of all places? And we’re talking about it. A brand mission film combines DDB’s creative heritage, going back to Bill Bernbach and skipping through its world-famous campaigns, with a future-forward vision. ‘Unexpected Works’ marries the offering of creative excellence and real effectiveness in a pithy bit of copywriting that sees DDB flexing its muscles. 

According to Marty, this campaign is the product of a carefully and collaboratively planned out business strategy. “It's important to talk about the process, because it's not just a whimsical thought to ‘do a little campaign’, it's the end result of some rigorous planning, which we do so well for our clients, but we often don't for ourselves,” he says.


For Marty, empowering and engaging the local teams has always been core to his vision for raising up DDB. And so, when developing the business strategy and positioning for the network, Marty very deliberately involved international management to help construct the plan.

“What often happens in agencies, is that New York or London come up with the thinking about the next phase of the agency and its positioning… and the network often disregards it and just keep doing their own thing. So, what I did, through the whole business planning process, was I invited the top 300 people of management to be part of the business planning, the creation of that plan, to own that plan,” Marty explains. “And importantly, then when we got to strategic development of what that means for us as a business, I used our key lead officers around the world to be part of the journey. The end result is everyone owns it, and everyone feels it's theirs.” 

Moreover, now that the plan and campaign is ready to share, DDB has just wrapped up a week-long virtual conference for the whole 10,000-strong network. It’s another thing that the Covid-19 situation has unlocked – in previous years this might have taken the form of a 200 or 300-strong leadership conference, in which management would learn about goals and visions. This time, regional and global leaders have been able to communicate directly with people and encourage a sense of cohesion.

“Why wouldn't we actually be talking to all these people in a coordinated way like this? So, for me, the ambition was to make sure that every employee understands what we believe, and also understands the razor focus that is in our business plan,” says Marty, who says this conference was also an important step towards forging a stronger sense of being part of a global community. 

He also says this is a plan with follow through. He’s going to be observing, measuring and reviewing progress at regional and local levels. What he doesn’t want to do is send out some lofty, unsubstantiated pronouncements and leave local offices to muddle along unsupported or ignore the strategy completely. “I want to sit back in 12 months’ time and go ‘wow, you know, with our retention rates with staff are better we're acquiring more clients, we've become the talent magnet of the industry because people will want to be part of what we're doing’. And you know, that has to also translate into growth for our businesses, as well. As we grow, that gives us more fuel to hire more people and experiment and do different things and, and again that's part of the cycle which any good leader, really gets buzzed with. When you when you've got that momentum going, you can then take some take some risks,” he says.

In terms of concrete initiatives, the virtual conference saw the launch of two major initiatives. The Brain is an internal strategy platform that hosts case studies and strategic and new business tools.  Meanwhile, The Heart is an internal creative ranking tool to help the network assess creative work. If this moment marks DDB’s journey along an on-brand yellow brick road, it seems that Marty’s got courage in spades. He also hints that there are more initiatives coming along the road.

And already, the team have made substantial progress. In terms of hires, North America has signalled its commitment to creative use of data and technology via the fire of North America CEO Justin-Thomas Copeland and chief data officer Jatinder Singh. North America has made 44 hires, bolstering capabilities and diversity across the agency. In terms of global leadership, Nikki Lamba has been announced as head of diversity and inclusion, Roisin Rooney as global chief people officer, and Alex Hesz as global CSO.

And with North America leading the way, both in terms of hires and internal upskilling, Marty has a very specific idea of what a good creative agency bolstered by data and tech really looks like. And, perhaps more crucially, he knows what he doesn’t want to see.

“For me, unleashing, creativity in the middle of data and technology is a massive opportunity for DDB. I think too many agencies and clients have got obsessed with efficiency and automated platforms that really aren't creative. They deliver a tonnage of messages, that turn lot of consumers off, and actually it has a negative impact on your brand,” Marty reflects. “My vision is, rather than see data and technology as a threat to the traditional business, it's saying: this is actually the most exciting time for us. We can use our creativity and our storytelling ability to actually have more intimate conversations or more relevant conversations because we're using data. We're using something amazing technology that keeps arriving on our doorstep. There's always something new, we can do things that we only were dreaming of a couple of years ago.”

There’s an energy and playfulness about the campaign, and for Marty that keys into a sense of optimism and a renewed sense of belief in creativity. While he wholeheartedly believes in the importance of data and is investing heavily in talent and capabilities in data, Marty has no interest in simply aping the grinding efficiency and automation drives of the grey management consultancies that have been posed as a challenge to the creative agency world. As many parts of the world start to see an increase in marketing spend and a growth in Covid-19 vaccination rates, there’s an optimism about the fun and energy that agencies can bring to businesses and consumers.

“I'm sick and tired of everyone saying that our industry is not as relevant as it used to be and that there's so many other management consultancies and other people that are taking our position. Part of this also, for me is, is about confidence. It's about giving us some swagger in the marketplace because an agency, at its best, with the amazing ideas that we generate, does something that management consultants, for example, can't deliver. We've got to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing in the ecosystem of our clients, and prove, we've got the intellectual, strategic firepower and creative people that can actually create ideas the clients can't do themselves. That, at the end of the day, is what they pay for: we surprise them and delight them because they go, I didn't expect that.”

With such a clear vision, it’s no surprise that Marty calls the strategy the ‘plan to win’. He sees himself as a coach, DDB’s Ted Lasso, bring talent together and connecting them. But the former athlete is not faffing about – he says the network is playing to win, though, it’s not about winning at any cost.  “Winning for me is everything but it's how you win, and how you feel about the people you've worked with to actually get that win. It's not winning at all costs, it's winning on a journey that actually grows people we have some fun on the way,” he says.

So, in concrete terms what will that win look like? Marty strongly believes that there’s a very specific pathway to growth. It starts with people, and with the right people, a strong creative product follows – and getting these two steps right leads to profit. So this year his KPIs are all about revenue growth but also around talent – lowering churn and turning the network into a talent magnet. Marty’s keenly aware of the so-called ‘talent crunch’, the fierce competition for talent that’s partly been driven by markets that are heating up in an age of Covid-19 border restrictions, meaning agencies are all competing fiercely over the same local pool. 

“For me, the whole people KPI is the most important one because if you get that right, you do great creative, you win lots of awards, you win new clients, and your profit comes. So, my number one KPI is all about our people and the culture and the community that we create,” says Marty.

Going forward, Marty sees internal communications to be a key tool to glue the network together and to make people feel valued by their colleagues. He’s full of praise for Lindsay Bennett, recently promoted to the global comms role who has been instrumental in these efforts. Moreover, global management meetings, drawing together people from markets like Singapore, India, Latin America, Australasia, Europe and North America, meet fortnightly, while in the pre-Covid days these meetings would happen a handful of times a year and in person. There are more initiatives and major hires to be announced in the not-too-distant future. 

Featured Companies: LBB Editorial

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