Global Agency of the Year: DDB

The proof came in small but significant new-business wins like Weetabix in the U.K., telecom marketer Hutchinson in Hong Kong and a new McDonald’s assignment in Scandanavia. And it came in big chunks, like Capital One in Chicago, Subaru in New York, Volkswagen Fox in Germany and Audi A6 in France—four accounts that totaled $450 million in new billings.

The proof was tangible—the Berlin office, for example, was named one of the top 10 shops for creativity in Germany for the first time in 30 years. And it was intangible—the renewed swagger in the air at the New York office was so palpable that the CEO of DDB’s holding company felt it in the elevator.

And the evidence points to one conclusion: DDB, Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year for 2003, repeated its performance last year and earned the award again.

The Omnicom Group network vaulted to the top in 2003 in large measure because it won the largest global creative review of the year (Philips) and prevailed in one of the largest roster-shop shoot-outs (McDonald’s). Its results in 2004 were just as impressive—the global network added more than $1 billion in billings for the third year in a row. But this time it did so without the benefit of a single huge win like Philips; rather, it added a bunch of midsize pieces of business and scores of local accounts billing $20 million or less. Furthermore, 2004 was a year when four-year worldwide CEO Ken Kaess saw management moves he had made in the past 18 months pay off in key but challenged offices like Berlin, London and New York.

DDB’s success “was a long time in the making,” says Omnicom CEO John Wren, and it comes down to “the team that Ken has built around the world, with the people that he’s brought on board and empowered since he’s been the CEO, and the cohesiveness. … Everybody understands everybody’s strength, and they just get on with it.” In 2004, Wren says, the recent management changes were all “very positive in terms of affecting local markets and contributing at a much higher level to the success of the company on a global basis.”

That global success was more than evident: DDB’s 12,000 staffers in 206 offices in 96 countries (including a newly opened outpost in Pakistan) collectively reeled in more than $1.1 billion in new business in 2004, while retaining all but 1 percent of existing business. The network boosted revenue by 15 percent, to an estimated $3.1 billion, and global billings by the same percentage, to an estimated $24.2 billion.

Its only significant loss last year was the $100 million Alltel business, which DDB Chicago was unable to defend. But that business was more than recovered barely a month later, when Capital One moved its business from McCann to the Chicago office without a review.

As he was in 2003, the worldwide ringmaster was Kaess. Like most agency leaders, he is a peripatetic traveler, but he spent even more than the usual 50 percent of his time on the road in 2004. He decided the agency needed to measure its talent using the same kind of metrics by which it evaluates profit, and so he spent much of his travel time doing performance planning meetings with James Best, the network’s chief people and strategic officer and president of the Middle East and Africa. “People understood that if I was in the room, it was as important to discuss people and product as profit,” Kaess says of his hyper-hectic schedule. Besides, he says, “I can’t go into an Amsterdam or a Sydney and pretend to know what’s on people’s minds. It’s better if they’re comfortable asking questions, which they always are.”

In one five-week span, Kaess traveled from New York to Düsseldorf to Amsterdam, back to New York, then on to Toronto, then Miami, then back to New York, then on to Sydney, back to New York again, then London. A Red Sox fan, Kaess was able to catch the World Series games in sports bars and other venues during his odyssey—a highlight of which was fielding a barrage of questions about baseball from Best, an Oxford-educated Brit, as the latter downed a cheeseburger in a Miami joint. (“Foul balls don’t count,” Kaess remembers telling Best—luckily, the CEO managed to enjoy the Series-clinching Game 4 by himself in a hotel room in Los Angeles.)

Someone recently asked Kaess what it’s like to do what he does. “I shouldn’t say this,” he replied, “but I feel like [New York Yankees manager] Joe Torre, with the best talent, and it’s my job to get them to perform. I work for a guy with an insatiable desire to win, who puts the best team on the field—and I can’t believe I’m making a Yankee analogy.”

It isn’t easy to pull off heritage-agency confidence and regular-guy charm at the same time, but Kaess does it. His self-professed “humanist” approach, which he regards as the natural consequence of the DDB legacy, passed on to him by worldwide chairman Keith Reinhard, resonates with staff and clients alike. Lee Garfinkel, chairman and chief creative officer of DDB New York, met Kaess at a 4A’s meeting a couple of years ago, when the former was at Lowe. “Ken was one of the few people who had the dignity to congratulate me for having won the O’Toole Award,” Garfinkel recalls. “We stayed in touch, and eventually I realized that DDB would be right for two simple reasons: the humanity of the people and their commitment to great work.”

Nowhere is DDB’s current high felt more than in New York. In April, Gap’s Peter Hempel came aboard as managing director of the office, joining Garfinkel, a former colleague of Hempel’s at Lowe. It was Garfinkel’s arrival in March 2003 from now-defunct D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles that was the “catalytic event,” as Wren describes it, in the renaissance of the recently moribund office.

Subaru, which DDB won following a five-month review, was one of two former clients Garfinkel brought into the fold last year. (When Subaru vp of advertising Rich Crosson called to say DDB had won the business, he told Garfinkel, “Welcome back home to Subaru.”) The other was Pepsi, which chose DDB to handle its Diet Pepsi business following an all-Omnicom shoot-out.

New York also brought in the $10 million Lipton business and, with London, pitched and won a global assignment from Novartis worth more than $100 million in new billings to the network. (In another example of DDB’s multi-office “SWAT”-team approach, the Novartis pitch group also included Chicago chairman and U.S. chief creative officer Bob Scarpelli.)

“Each DDB office has a personality of its own that is driven by its key people,” says Crosson. “In our case, it was Lee and Peter. DDB New York is really a blend of their personalities. And it hasn’t been just us. Look at the other clients they’re attracting.”

2004 was “by far the most successful year for New York in new business in the 15 years I’ve been here,” says Cleve Langton, worldwide director of business development. Indeed, while New York did play a key role in 2003’s Philips win (which added some $300 million in billings), it had won only one piece of business worth $100 million or more by itself this century—Merck’s cholesterol drug Vytorin, also in 2003. In all, in the first full year of the Garfinkel era, the office grew from $650 million to more than $1 billion in billings.

The turnaround in Manhattan (and the resulting vibe, which Wren, whose office is in the building, said he could feel on the elevator) was impressive. It was sometimes dramatic: Some staffers cried when Garfinkel announced the Subaru win. And Michael Bray, president of Europe and Asia, calls it “the best thing to happen from a corporate point of view [in 2004]. We feel it in Europe. The network needs a big, creative, successful New York office.”

It did seem to have an effect there, as new leaders in Europe added business and energy to the network’s fortunes as well. Germany, which picked up the $80 million Volkswagen Fox account and saw its Volkswagen corporate campaign expanded to other markets, also enjoyed a turnaround in terms of reputation last year, engineered by Tonio Kroger and Amir Kassaei, the former Springer & Jacoby creative star who arrived in 2003. In Paris, Patrick Faure was promoted from strategic planning director to co-managing director and oversaw the $30 million Audi A3 Sportback victory. Paris also won Nike’s account in France.

Other cities saw significant changes, too: Ex-Lowe U.S. CEO Paul Hammersley arrived in London as chairman and CEO. (Hammersley then recruited David Hackworthy from TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York as head of planning.) Dana Anderson left Foote Cone & Belding to join DDB Chicago as president and CEO. And Chicago was also chosen as the preferred city in which to open the first U.S. office of Downtown Partners, DDB’s Canadian creative boutique.

Part of what continues to impress clients about DDB’s global offices is its ability to play well with others—even with shops not in its holding-company family. Mike George, who has worked with DDB for four years as chief marketing officer of Dell, says, “What we’ve asked of DDB is to find the most effective way to share work and concepts around the world. … We trust in their ability to manage their network, and they are also a good partner in exchanging ideas with our other non-DDB agencies in components of our business where we might use specialists such as catalogs or online. To me, it’s an important value for an agency that they are not a closed shop.”

Last year, Dell gave its European business to DDB, which already handled North America. But it did have to make competitive pitches in each new market. “They very much have to earn it in each region,” George says.

Where Kaess has his baseball analogies, North America CEO Dick Rogers prefers contact sports to explain how the network functions. “It’s more like the way soccer is played than football,” he says. “Everybody knows what they need to do, and they go play the game, rather than collect in a huddle after every play. That’s what we did with Novartis, what we’re doing on the [ongoing] Intel pitch, and what we did with the McDonald’s consolidation in Nordic countries.”

For McDonald’s global marketing officer Larry Light, DDB is distinctive in its ability to build “new disciplines for developing creative.” The global “I’m lovin’ it” positioning was created by DDB’s German unit in 2003, but much of the execution occurred last year. “We were looking for global harmonization, not standardization,” Light says. “Our concepts of using freedom within a framework and brand journalism have been open to a lot of debate and struggle, [but] DDB embraced the idea. They didn’t resist change, which I think a lot of people predicted the agencies would do. There were some creative people, including at DDB, who were uncomfortable that a creative approach developed outside the U.S. would be imported here, because it’s never happened before. But the DDB leadership within the U.S. embraced the idea and accepted the challenge—of not how do we replicate it, but how do we improve the idea?

“I think it’s also interesting and fortunate that at Cannes, the first medal that ‘I’m lovin’ it’ won was a bronze for DDB,” Light adds. “We are proud that the first award was won by the agency that came up with the idea. But it wasn’t for the original ad in the launch campaign. It was for a commercial that was actually created in 2004. I think that demonstrates the dedication the agency has, that every time we look at new advertising, we hope that it moves the story forward rather than just repeat the story we have been telling for a year and a half.”

Creative remains a hallmark of the network, and in this area as well, the network’s managers, newly minted or otherwise, maintained the momentum of 2003, when DDB won more Cannes Lions than any other global network and was honored as the most-awarded agency in the half-century history of the International Advertising Festival.

Last year, The Gunn Report noted that DDB was the most-awarded agency network in the world, with 25 offices in 18 markets earning creative kudos. (DDB topped the first Gunn Report in 1999 and has never ranked below the top five.) And for the fourth year in a row, DDB was named Network Agency of the Year at the Clio Awards.

DDB’s European outposts were the most-awarded network at the 2004 Eurobest Awards, with Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Brussels, London and Paris collectively winning 15 awards. (Two spots that ran in the Netherlands for insurance company Centraal Beheer, including the hilarious “Cleaning Ladies” spot, in which the gossipy gals tidy up a crime scene, were voted among the five favorite commercials of 2004 by Dutch TV viewers.) And at the 18th annual Epica Awards, Europe’s version of the Effies, DDB had six winners from five countries, tying Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett for most-awarded network.

The network also saw continued creative success in the U.S. Standout work included new Anheuser-Busch executions featuring self-centered pro athlete Leon, this time trying to steal camera angles from broadcaster Joe Buck, and the continuing Real Men of Genius campaign, which in 2004 saluted “Mr. Giant Taco Salad Inventor,” among other mock heroes. And DDB got what Scarpelli and Rogers like to call “talk value” from their Rubber-Band Man character for OfficeMax when he appeared on the Today show and in People magazine.

The network’s historic creative flair, in fact, helped salvage 2004 for DDB’s flagship Windy City office just before the year ran out and just after it lost Alltel. Capital One made an over-the-transom call to Scarpelli, who had never spoken to the credit-card marketer before, and offered up its account because it admired the agency’s work.

Still, DDB did miss “not winning that annual huge mammoth account that changes everything,” says Bray, asked what his biggest disappointment of 2004 was.

“It’s learning to race—there isn’t a finish line,” Rogers concludes. “We haven’t really completed the mission. If you go into the management ranks in all the offices, the leadership feels the same way. We set goals, but they are mileposts, not a destination. My biggest disappointment last year was probably that we didn’t win all the business that we went after. You want to bat 1.000, even though no one does.”