An agency's history can be a powerful differentiator: DDB Worldwide CEO

Wendy Clark
For 48-year-old Wendy Clark, president and chief executive officer, DDB Worldwide, the corporate ladder had several missing rungs — for one she was a woman in a man's world, and two, she started out in the trenches. She began life as a receptionist three decades ago, rather than an account planner as is the norm in a typical advertising career trajectory. Clark broke the glass ceiling and many other walls to become the first woman CEO at DDB in February 2018, a storied name on Madison Avenue, New York. She is among the few women CEOs heading global ad networks today, the other being Tamara Ingram, chairman, Wunderman Thompson. Clark is well aware of the power she carries and understands the urgent need for gender diversity in her business. Along with Ingram and a few others, she began the Time's Up Advertising movement in New York last year, to address sexual harassment and gender inequality at the workplace. Within her organisation, she is putting into practice what she's preaching. More female leaders are being appointed across markets at DDB offices. On her second visit to India since being appointed CEO, she highlights her priorities for the market, in an interview with Viveat Susan Pinto. Edited excerpts:

At a time when disruption is the only big theme in advertising today, give us your sense of the market in India and the world? 

I remain optimistic. Yes, advertising is seeing disruption from new-age tech companies and consultancies and it is increasingly getting harder to achieve growth, but I still remain excited about the business. This optimism will be needed if we have to evolve as an industry. The mandates for most markets from my point of view is to act with speed, agility, flexibility and price efficiency.

But with consultants such as Accenture and Bain getting bigger in advertising, aren’t you worried that they will walk away with the business?

I don't view consultancies as a threat. I take them and the investment they are making in the advertising business as a huge vote of confidence. The remit for us is that competition is going to get tougher and that we have to put our best foot forward and play our A-game, investing in the right talent, capability and strategic intent. Clients are clear that they want a deeply engaging consumer experience with their brands rather than passive advertising. This lends itself to a slew of capabilities including experiential marketing, brand-building, story-telling as well as creating loyalty programmes for clients.

What are the capabilities you are investing in and will you consider acquisitions in India?

We are always open to acquisitions. The last one was that of digital agency 22feet, which we merged with our existing digital agency Tribal Worldwide India to launch 22feet Tribal in the country. While it was a few years ago (in 2014), it has allowed us to establish our digital presence and complement our overall portfolio of services here. Having said that, our journey has also been about dipping into our network to fill key gaps. In shopper marketing, for instance, we launched Tracy Locke in India, which is part of the global network. We brought our global healthcare practice into the country as well as our data-driven agency TrackDDB. Mudra too has skills we’ve tapped into, including its strong advertising legacy.

Ad networks are increasingly merging their legacy agency brands with new-age digital companies for a simpler, more cohesive advertising unit. Where do you stand in this debate of consolidation versus specialisation?

I am not inclined towards this mash-up going around with agency names. Historical relevance is lost in the process. We are instead doubling down on our legacy, having introduced the full form of DDB, that is, Doyle Dane Bernbach back into our name. It seems like a commoditised move today to go away from one’s legacy. An agency’s history can be a powerful differentiator.

But what about this raging debate about consolidation versus specialisation? Clients no longer want an army of specialists…

That is correct. But I will give you an analogy to explain where I stand in this debate. Agencies especially these majestic, old networks were like oak trees in the past. But now they’ve been called upon to be more like bamboo trees, sturdy and rigorous. While we will respond to that need, I do want to spread and be dynamic.

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