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The tidy-up job: what will DDB's Wendy Clark face at Dentsu Aegis Network?

Wendy Clark joins Dentsu in September

When Wendy Clark joins Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) as global chief executive in September, she’ll inherit a group that’s data-obsessed, decentralized and somewhat disorganized. What needs to be whipped into shape?

It wasn’t meant to happen like this.

Wendy Clark, president and chief executive of DDB Worldwide, was meant to smoothly transition out from her post of two years and reappear as global chief of Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) once her six months were up.

It wasn’t meant to look like she was jumping ship in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t meant to look like she was ducking out the back door while DDB’s “people and clients [struggle] with the fallout of Covid-19”, to use the words of her Omnicom boss, John Wren.

So, while Clark is excited about the task ahead, she’s determined to make it clear that leaving DDB wasn’t always part of her plan.

“I wasn't done with all the things I wanted to do,” she says in a phone interview. “I recruited a lot of people. We were doing well. There were things we needed to do better, but we certainly were making strong progress across the ambition we had.

“That was the difficult part of the equation: I didn't want to leave”

Enter DAN’s executive chairman, Tim Andree, who began his professional wooing game last year. The global chief executive gig was on the table (‘global’ hadn’t been used in the title at the company before) next to the accomplishment: never before has a female exec held the top job at any of the big six advertising firms.

“When I was at DAN it always felt like such a male-dominated network – at the agency and network level,” wrote Uber’s global head of media, Travis Freeman, in reaction to the news on LinkedIn. “I love the idea of [Clark] bringing in a different, and beyond-needed perspective.”

But it was the company and its potential that Clark was sold on, she says.

“The more I looked, the clearer it became that DAN is all about were the things that I believe have come to be the future of our industry: data, technology and creativity all integrated together in practice,” she says.

“It was hard to look away when I knew what was what they were going to ask me to do.”

Regular remits in challenging times

Ostensibly, the role Clark will take up in September is that of a typical global chief executive.

She will remain as active as possible on the client side and plans to recreate her “office at 30,000 feet” to visit as many markets as possible in a year. Her experience on Madison Avenue means she’s the perfect person to build “more around the creative aspects of the network”, while her years spent at AT&T and Coca-Cola will allow her to take an authentically “active” role on DAN’s accounts.

She remains, she says, “completely focused on growth” when it comes to clients, confident that more money for them will equal more money for the agencies.

But she’ll also face a number of internal difficulties, the most obvious of which being the earnings fallout from the coronavirus.

Like all agency holding companies, parent Dentsu Group is preparing to be hit by slashes in marketing spend across the world. Yet DAN does not have a bountiful Q1 to cushion this fall in estimates: the group’s international business recorded “slightly negative organic growth” in January and February of this year – before the virus really plundered the west.

This part of the business includes seven markets that began ‘restructuring’ at the end of last year, resulting in job cuts across Australia, China, Singapore, France, Germany, Brazil and the UK, where DAN is headquartered globally. On 25 March, the company confirmed the restructuring of its international business “is continuing as planned with most markets on track”.

While the financial worst may still be ahead, Clark is therefore somewhat of a symbolic – and not inexpensive – hire after a difficult year for DAN’s staff.

“Wendy has an impressive CV and track record of success,” says Paul Allen, founder of Red Dots Consulting.

“The challenge faced by all agency leaders right now is how to look for opportunities for their agencies and their clients, so the timing couldn’t better for Wendy to come in with a fresh perspective and make tangible changes to the way Dentsu operates.”

A portfolio of potential

Restructuring difficulties aside, Clark’s belief in Dentsu’s brands is far from misplaced.

The group has quietly built a bulked-up portfolio while other rivals continue to consolidate their existing properties, acquiring E-Nor, Digital Pi and 4Cite in January alone.

Many of these deals were designed to bolster its capabilities in data, CRM and digital, a task which began with DAN's acquisition of data business Merkle in 2016. This took place well before IPG bought Acxiom, or Publicis bought Epsilon.

“Dentsu have been doing some really cool and ambitious things – especially in Asia and Australia – that sound more [to do with] key business infrastructure and not simply martech execution,” says Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of strategic consultancy Sparrow Advisors.

“They have a lot of good stuff. It just isn't integrated well – or at all.”

This is the general consensus on DAN: it's got great stuff that's badly organized.

“The general zeitgeist seems to be that [DAN] is bringing Wendy on to improve creative, but I don't really see that being her main mandate,” says Tom Denford, co-founder of media consultancy ID Comms. “Wendy Clark is someone you hire when you need to rethink and simplify the role of a media agency.

“Media agencies – and DAN is among the worst at this – have grown so complex that even internally senior people can’t explain the structure or know how to navigate. Her first jobs should be to rebrand the media assets as ‘Dentsu Media’ globally, bringing the global network closer to the home turf brand.

"Next [she should] rationalize the many sub-brand agencies into a manageable and understandable roster and then to tidy up the layers of complexity in data, tech and tools.

“DAN agencies lost their personalities after the Merkle acquisition, with everyone being told to follow the data for breakfast, lunch and dinner story as if it was a competitive advantage. These days when media agencies are all saying the same thing, Wendy has an opportunity to bring a creative and strategic narrative back to the group.”

Reaching across the Sea of Japan

Clark’s announcement also came with a reminder that Toshi Yamamoto, president and chief executive of Dentsu Group, is still forging ahead with his plans for a ‘One Dentsu’ model while the world retreats behind borders.

DAN, which contributes 60% of the group’s revenue as of February 2019, has historically operated separately to Dentsu Japan.

The latter operates entirely differently to its international sister; alongside conducting business in a typically Japanese way, it owns stakes in several broadcasters and media owners, and therefore holds significant cultural influence on its home turf. As the FT put it, the Japanese operation is "more than just an ad agency".

This means that ‘One Dentsu’ will be more difficult to form than, say, ‘One Ogilvy’.

“There’s things you can do in Dentsu Japan you can’t do anywhere else,” warned one ad exec who has previously worked closely with the group’s headquarters. “Dentsu Japan struggled to internationalize for years, so they went down the route of getting people in the West to build something new.

“If they really want to [integrate DAN and Japan] it will all come down to how well they can run a truly international business from a cultural point of view.”

Clark's road ahead is long, and she'll inevitably be scrutinized more than her counterparts as the first woman in the job. But what lies ahead of her is also exciting – running the first holding company to genuinely build itself around data, and bringing the secrets of Dentsu's Japanese success to the west.

What's required first, though, is a big old tidy up and repackaging of what DAN really is.

"If Wendy can figure that out," says Allen, "then Dentsu will be a real force.”

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