It’s Long Past Time for Creative Agencies to Move Outside Their Comfort Zone

DDB N.Y. CEO says balance between earned and paid media has shifted


Current gig President and CEO of DDB New York

Previous gig CEO of DDB Group Australia

Twitter @brownchrisd

Age 41

Adweek: As an executive who spent much of your career in Australia and the U.K., what are some differences you have noticed since moving to the States?

Chris Brown: Of course, there are lots of differences, but I was more struck by the similarities. All clients are experiencing a level of disruption that creates opportunities and challenges, and conversations with clients here indicate that what they are looking for and the things keeping them awake at night are really similar to those in Sydney, London and Shanghai. For example, how do brands become more purpose driven? How do they use paid and earned media more effectively? How can they behave more like publishers?

What are the key elements that play into assembling a great team on the agency side?

[DDB co-founder] Bill Bernbach said, "Life is too short to sacrifice so much of it to living with a bastard." Advertising can be a great business to work in, but it helps to work with people who are not only talented but also nice. One of the things I've done in New York is to launch "The Four Freedoms," which [DDB chairman] Keith Reinhard invented 15 years ago: freedom to be, freedom from chaos, freedom from fear and freedom to fail. It's a nice way to codify talented and nice in order to build a dynamic and agile agency.

What does "culture" mean to you in this context?

For me, it's an element of clarity: identifying a North Star and figuring out how we can galvanize a team to reach that point. Three months ago, we developed a culture working group called Spark and invited everyone in the agency. Spark gives them a voice on initiatives small and large as they work with our leadership team.

Do agencies need to expand their horizons on the talent front to extend beyond advertising?

I think it's absolutely critical. While I was in Australia, we changed the name of McDonald's to Maccas for Australia Day, did a big PR push and won at Cannes. The idea came from a person on the PR side at Mango, and as we think about the balance of paid, earned and owned ideas, having such people on the team is very important.

How does that balance play into building a strong creative campaign?

Platforms may change, but the most powerful creative content still starts with a true human insight. For our [MTV] Video Music Awards Clean & Clear campaign, the team came up with the idea that the most important acceptance speeches are the ones that we give to ourselves. We created a fantastic film, we had a newsroom at Twitter that engaged with real-time conversations, and we got great results by combining social, paid, real-time marketing and the work of our partners. The next day, we didn't do a big PR push, so it was quite organic. The headlines read "Clean & Clear Wins the VMAs," or words to that effect.

What is the most important thing "traditional" agencies need to do to stay relevant?

We're not a traditional agency. Yes, we have a fantastic history and equity—but for me, a modern agency works at the intersection of creativity, data and technology. So we are significantly deepening our skill sets in data analytics, UX and social capabilities, and we just hired a Heineken veteran [Chiara Martini] as our head of social strategy. It's all about building the agency to play at that intersection. We are on a journey, and I'm excited about where we're heading.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.