DDB’s new global chief exec's ‘no bullshit’ approach to collaboration & creativity

DDB’s North American chief exec Justin Thomas-Copeland (left); Global chief exec Marty O'Halloran

While having his morning coffee at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, DDB’s new global chief exec Marty O'Halloran tells The Drum why this is a new day for DDB.

“I’m a competitive person. I love winning,” says DDB’s new global CEO Marty O'Halloran. O’Halloran, who has served as chairman and chief exec of DDB Australia and New Zealand since 2005, was elevated yesterday as the successor to Wendy Clark. Clark departed to lead the Dentsu Aegis Network and will begin her role in September.

DDB also named Justin Thomas-Copeland chief exec of the network's North America region. Thomas-Copeland joins from OPMG Health, an Omnicom Precision Marketing Group network, where he served as global CEO.

So, what are the keys to winning amid this current, troublesome moment? The affable, and candid, O’Halloran outlined these key areas:

Arming clients with a reason to spend. “People say, ‘you must be worried, you know the whole industry is changing so much. It's time to get out.' But if you actually understand the new world, it's the most exciting time to be in this industry. Agencies need to adapt and deliver exactly what clients want. The one thing I know is: I listen to clients. I understand what they want, and then I build the teams to deliver it. And that's why I've been chosen to do this role.

With the headwinds we're facing right now, it's about arming our clients, to give them the confidence, to get the support from the organization to invest in marketing. We have to [provide] robust strategic platforms demonstrating that the investment actually delivers a return. I was with a CEO yesterday and he literally said, ‘I've taken three and a half million dollars of the budget and I'm waiting for someone to prove to me that I need to put that back into the budget.’ That’s the challenge that we're all facing in terms of offering proof.”

Bringing Omnicom agencies together. “One of the things that I'm definitely going to do is lean into other Omnicom agencies, especially in North America and in Europe. I'm a total team player. We've got some amazing resource within the wider Omnicom family of agencies, and so my message is: I'm going to unleash in the North American market as we've never seen before.

There are always going to be clients that want to pick and choose specialist agencies, but we are also seeing an increasing desire for things to be more joined up in terms of agencies working and collaborating really well together. That's my job to help put together the right assets and the right groups of people.

[In terms of clients in-housing, often] what looked like a cost-saving initiative, eventually ends up not saving money because you can't attract the right talent, and they end up being inefficient. We can redeploy people to other clients when the work-flow changes, but if you have an in-house team that means you have days where they're sitting there doing nothing. I think clients will go through a cycle and go ‘I want the best creative talent.’ The best creative talent will always want to work in an agency because of the environment.”

Creating a ‘no bullshit’ culture. “I have to transform and revitalize, arguably, the most famous advertising brand on the planet. We're lucky that many of our agencies in countries like France, London, New Zealand and Sydney are market leaders. I will not rest until all of our agencies are considered market leaders and are creatively dominating in the markets where we operate. It’s pretty simple when you get it right: focus on your people, build an amazing culture and your product then starts to really stand out from a creative point of view. That drives your profit. That’s exactly the philosophy I’ll employ in all markets, including North America. It’s simple, but it actually works. But importantly, it's actually getting that right talent mix. Those who know me well, know there's no bullshit, there's no politics. It's all about the team. It's all about us. If you create that right environment and chemistry, the clients feel it.”

Rooting creativity in emotion in context. “My criticism of the industry is: I think a lot of marketers and agencies have gotten carried away with the tools and the techniques and the data available to them and so there is laziness that comes with that. What we have to do is understand what the data is telling us, use the right martech platforms and technology available to us, but then unleash the creativity in terms of the messaging.

We’ve always done well in terms of building emotional connections for brand platforms that really endure over time and can weather storms like we're in at the moment. But the other thing, besides that, which is a real growth opportunity for DDB is what we call ‘emotion in context’ which actually sits next to 'emotion at scale.' The context for me is when we are doing a short-term retail sales-driven activity where we are using data and technology to connect with consumers in a more personalized way. The two, working hand-in-hand is, for me, the holy grail of what agencies should be looking for today…We have many examples within the DDB network where we've built similar models. But I think that's the opportunity for us to unleash that and with the appointment, we're making with Justin in North America that's a signal that DDB is transforming and changing.”

[Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length.]

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