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DDB Chicago boss Andrea Diquez explains her recovery plan for legendary agency

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

May 9, 2022 | 8 min read

Andrea Diquez was hired to turn DDB Chicago around. The CEO and her new lieutenants at DDB’s American flagship tell The Drum about the recovery effort and client demands for diverse perspectives.

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Andrea Diquez on how she’s overhauling the agency

DDB Chicago translates to ’creativity’,“ says Rodrigo Jatene, the agency’s chief creative officer, with its work adorning the walls of art galleries and design museums across the world: ’Lemon’, ’Think Small’, ’Avis’ and all that. But according Jatene, who took up his role in December, the Chicago shop’s star has faded a little. It’s been through “some rough years,“ he says.

”When you compare DDB Chicago now with what it was a decade or two ago, when you compare it to the DDB network – Adam&Eve, DDB Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Alma – Chicago hasn’t been quite as strong.”

Immediately prior to the pandemic, DDB North America had been losing ground to rivals and saw key personnel move on. Now, the agency is in the midst of a turnaround effort led by a new chief executive and a new top team, with a focus on ”reclaiming the throne,” as Jatene puts it.

Turnaround effort

Andrea Diquez, DDB Chicago’s freshly installed chief executive, has been on a hiring spree, rebuilding the agency’s leadership team. Jatene came on board to fill the chief creative spot 18 months after the departure of predecessor John Maxham. Diquez also brought back Milo Chao in September, as chief strategy officer, and then in November hired Sandra Alfaro as head of business leadership and made Matt Blitz head of integrated production.

Diquez says much of her time has been spent concerned with ”buying in personalities and chemistry and passion,” with the aim of ”rebuilding, improving DDB Chicago’s creative reputation and bringing in new skills”.

She estimates that the process of ”fixing and rebuilding” could take anywhere from six months to three years. Most critical, however, has been recruiting a new agency corps. As well as the new leadership team, the agency has brought on 100 new hands – a significant influx within its total headcount of 240.

She says that, in the end, the shop benefitted from the enormous turnover in the US labor market: ”We’ve leveraged the Great Resignation. It has actually been good for us because we’ve been able to bring in new people and new skills.”

The production team under Blitz has ”95% new people in there”, she says. ”It’s become more diverse in talent and expertise. If it wasn’t for the Great Resignation, I don’t know if we’d be there.”

The agency has also been focused on bidding for new business. Speaking on Zoom two days before a chemistry meeting in New York, Diquez says organic growth at the Chicago office has begun to tick up once more.

”The first thing was to stabilize our clients and grow our clients. When you go without leadership for a while, that can sometimes be a little tricky. We had a record year growing organically in Chicago. We have some good ideas that we launched into the market in the last six months [including a new campaign for Orkin] and we were able to win four pitches out of the five that we did.”

External influences

Prior to her role leading DDB Chicago, Diquez spent 26 years at Saatchi & Saatchi New York, latterly as chief executive officer. After a quarter century there, she says she ”wanted to make an impact somewhere else”.

A ”very competitive” poker player, Diquez says she was attracted by the opportunity – and the risk. ”Work was already going great, so I was like: ’OK, what do I do next?’ I’m a gambler, so I wanted to look for something new and see if we could actually make it happen.”

The game itself has taught her to ”always be ready for the unexpected,” she says, but it’s also an spur to competitiveness in business. ”I love to win.”

Alfaro, Chao, Jatene and Blitz all bought into her vision. According to the Jatene, aiding DDB’s renewal was core to the pitch. ”I’ve never wanted to have a job in my life, but I’ve always wanted to be part of a project,” he says. ”This one is a project. We are creating a new future creative powerhouse here. I’m in this for the greater goal, for the chance to rebuild an agency as iconic as DBB Chicago... It’s a blessing.”

Already acquainted from the early stages of their careers at Saatchi, Alfaro says: ”I knew that I would probably work harder than ever, but that I would laugh a lot too.” A professional coach as well as an agency exec, Alfaro says her colleague’s focus on talent development appealed to her. ”Rodrigo [Jatene] is a fixer and a builder; I’m a nurturer. Even in my role, it’s always been about the people. I knew that in this business leadership role, I’d get a chance to do that with an amazing team.”

With 10 languages between the five of them, the team have a particular focus on multicultural marketing.

”I think we might be the most diverse leadership team in the industry right now,” says Alfaro. ”And I don’t just say ’diversity’ in the way most people thing about it – in terms of ethnicity. We have diversity of experience, on all different kinds of businesses. Diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, diverse points of view – that’s what we bring to the table.”

The team’s diversity of perspectives are in demand from DDB’s clients, many of which target huge, disparate audiences that defy mass messaging – such as the US Army.

”It’s a key market for us to understand,” says Diquez. ”Our clients are looking for that younger audience... 50% of them are multicultural, more or less. I don’t think you can do ’Unexpected Work’ [DDB’s slogan] if you bring in the same people. We’re about bringing in people that are completely different to us, that look and feel different and that reflect America, right? That’s the way you get to the ideas that we want to get to.”

Inside track

”I was there during the dark days,” Blitz recalls. ”I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with DDB to be honest.” An executive producer when Diquez came on board, Blitz agreed to head the department at her request.

In turn, he has focused on promoting internally while expanding his team. ”It’s about giving people opportunities they never had before, like traditional art buyers that never got to work in motion or in activation.” In enabling staff to work beyond their specialisms, he has moved the agency beyond an ”antiquated way of working”.

Similar lessons are being applied by Alfaro as the agency hunts for new business. Three junior strategists and creatives joined the senior team in New York to meet a prospective client. ”It’s a chance for people to get involved,” says Alfaro. ”A lot of agencies keep junior folks backstage. We put them on stage. Nothing energizes an agency like new business... and they feel part of the win.”

Diquez says she wants to create a working environment without fear, which means listening to the ideas of junior or less experienced staff: ”I want to make sure they are not scared of coming up with an idea or saying that they don’t agree with us.” It also means exorcizing any ego in the agency. ”There are no assholes allowed. There’s no room for that.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the agency may find a solution in the poker deck. Losing the fear of failure is, after all, key to success in cards. Staff were scared to put forward challenging ideas, or to challenge bad ones, says Diquez. And, adds Blitz, prior to the reorganization ”there was a lot of that”.

In contrast, Diquez has brought in a startup mentality, with the aim of encouraging more experimentation at the agency. ”I believe in fail fast, fix fast, learn fast and move on,” she says.

”You have to gain trust. I just wrote an email to someone who just started with us. I told them: ’Welcome, it will be tough, we will have fun and I will have your back the whole way.’”

Agencies Agency Culture DDB Chicago

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