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Managing Marketing: Agency Brands and the Need for Creative Leadership

Ben_Welsh

Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Ben Welsh is the Chief Creative Officer at Doyle Dane Bernbach (AKA DDB) and talks about the evolution of the creative agency, the importance of strong agency brands and the need for creative leadership within agencies and with clients. This leadership extends from nurturing new talent and great ideas to helping navigate the complex creative award system and beyond.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing. Today I’m chatting with Ben Welsh who is the Chief Creative Officer at Doyle, Dane & Bernbach here in Sydney, Australia. Welcome, Ben.

Ben:

Good morning, Darren, and thank you for this opportunity. Interesting that you said Doyle, Dane & Bernbach.

Darren:

I did say that because of the rebranding. I know you have worked at DDB and we’ve all called it DDB but it’s gone back to its origins in a way, why’s that?

Ben:

It has indeed and it’s going to be interesting. DDB as a brand is very established. Doyle, Dane & Bernbach less so these days but what we have done by going back into the past is very much to embrace the future but through the lens of Bernbach.

When we launched it in Miami just a couple of weeks ago I think Damon Stapleton said, very aptly, that it’s a positioning and a look that’s kind of pre-approved by Bernbach himself because it’s an evolution of the original logo identity and it’s an evolution of the original thinking too.

Darren:

I think something gets lost in organisations when the founders move on. There is a thing about the founders’ advantage and the founders in a way set the culture and the style and the vision for an organisation which over time can be diluted or changed. Is that part of the process? Was it really going back to find out what the essence of the agency brand is?

Ben:

I think very much so. I think in DDB Australia today there is a real belief in the teachings of Bernbach. We are almost zealots about it. He has many quotes that most people would agree on anyway so it is quite easy to do that, he was visionary. So there’s no problem passing on his teachings within certainly this part of the world.

Having just come back from this global conference, that’s very much true for every part of the world. It’s not like we are trying to reinvent anything because it’s already there. It’s about refocusing rather than reinvention.

Darren:

And it’s also I guess finding a new frame for that, isn’t it? In a way, it isn’t the 21st century and the way we do business has changed and yet the fundamental tenets, have they changed that much?

Ben:

Well, we would argue they haven’t because there is one great Bernbach quote about the unchanging man. While the whole industry is focused on what’s new, the most important thing in the equation is what hasn’t really changed for a million years which is human beings and I think we very much believe in that here.

A lot of the new thinking is based on that insight. You could argue that even the new identity which is a very human interpretation of the original which was a very elegant sort of fifties type treatment but still quite corporate. I think where we’ve gone to now is we’ve evolved that and in doing so we’ve liberated it.

Yes, there are versions that exist in corporate colours but it’s actually two shapes and we have the freedom to express within those two shapes anything we want. So that is quite a modern, human interpretation of a very powerful brand.

Darren:

It was in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and even the start of this century, so many agencies that we’ve worked for or worked against have been reduced to a set of letters, haven’t they? You’ve got Y&R, BBDO you’ve had DDB what was it; was it just laziness or was it some sense of modernity that everyone just contracted it down to a set of letters?

In almost every case it was almost like a rejection of the founders because all of those letters were the names of founders.

Ben:

I wonder why it did happen. Was it an industry desperate to be taken seriously because it’s very much like law firms or accountancy firms; the names of agencies? There aren’t many creative names. Campaign Palace was an awesome name and I do hope someone resurrects that brand because it’s such a brilliant name for an advertising agency.

Darren:

Don’t quote me on this but I think there’s a Campaign Palace in Indonesia.

Ben:

Oh, good.

Darren:

I’m not sure it’s a hot spot of creativity but the name exists somewhere in the world.

Ben:

Hopefully, it is as good as the one we use to have here.

Darren:

But even that was called The Palace.

Ben:

Yeah it got shortened to The Palace but what a great place to work. Whereas most of us work for what sounds like accountancy firms and funnily enough some of us are working for accountancy firms now but that’s another story.

Darren:

We’ve just read that Accenture Interactive has just bought Droga 5 so it’s interesting how the big management consultancy companies are moving in further and further.

Ben:

Yes, I read that and I’m told they haven’t actually bought the whole thing, they’ve just bought the William Morris bit.

Darren:

Yeah, the 49 percent.

Ben:

Who can blame them?

Darren:

Well, it won’t be long, 49 percent today, 99 percent tomorrow. Just see how long David holds out while the zeros on the cheque multiply.

Ben:

Even Droga5 is a more interesting version of a name I suppose. Saatchi & Saatchi and M&C Saatchi they had and still have the Saatchi’s in them so if you have people of that name you should use that name if they are still in the company. I think that’s your point you made earlier, when the founder is there. Because why don’t we call this place Bernbach, it’s never been so even though we talk about Bernbach more than anyone else it’s always been DDB, the B being the most important thing.

This is the third iteration of the brand. The first I know of when I was there in the last century we went through a rebrand in the mid 90’s and then when I arrived here the brand had changed again and now it has changed yet again.

The beauty of it now is, if you stick the new identity up on a wall with all the competition you see very rapidly how everyone else does look like a firm of accountants and we actually look like a creative shop. I think that’s absolutely right because creativity and humanity, if they are two things that are at the heart of this organisation it’s those two things and I think the identity expresses that.

Darren:

I think JWT went through J Walter Thompson then JWT then they went back to J Walter Thompson then something else and now it’s Wunderman Thompson. I just wonder, from a brand perspective you would want to have some sort of consistency wouldn’t you at least from a creative perspective. We treat agency brand names as if they are almost consumables.

Ben:

We do and the same thing has happened with Y&R, VML or VMLY&R or whatever it is. I don’t know what’s going on in the world of WPP but desperate measures.

Darren:

Desperate times, desperate measures.

Ben:

So Ogilvy has lost the Mather, Ogilvy was definitely the more famous member of that family. Names, BBDO does have in London their AMV so they have a different culture where they keep the local agency identity and own it and merge with it very well I think.

TBWA is pretty much TBWA everywhere. It was WHYBIN TBWA here for a while.

Darren:

And WHYBIN Lawrence TBWA in Sydney and long-ago past was DMB&B.

Ben:

Masius

Ben:

That was right at the beginning of my career and I would get Masius and DBB mixed up all the time. Maybe because Ted Haughton had been at DDB and then he went to Masius so that may be why.

Darren:

They were also both on what’s called Bullshit Boulevard or St Kilda road so the offices in Melbourne were not that far away.

Ben:

They weren’t. And then there was a Lintas up here and that’s gone so the agency landscape has changed massively.

Darren:

I guess it would be difficult for Grey advertising to go back to their original roots cause do you know what the name of Grey was originally?

Ben:

No.

Darren:

Fatts and Valenstein. It was started by two good Jewish boys on Madison Avenue who during the First World War, I think it was when there was an anti-Jewish sentiment, decided to drop the name and change the name to Grey advertising.

Ben:

Worked for them.

Darren:

I’m not quite seeing WPP go back to calling it Fatts and Valenstein.

Ben:

Are they wireless plastic or something?

Darren:

Wires and Plastic Products, so it was a firm that made shopping baskets.

Ben:

What’s in a name?

Darren:

Exactly. I think you make meaning from a name and it’s interesting creatively, as we do spend a lot of time with our clients getting the names right or getting the meaning of the name right for the consumer. Yet I’m wondering, the thought process with going back to Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, what drove that?

Ben:

It was very much to get us, our own internal audience to refocus on what’s important and then to have a conversation with the world about what we consider to be important and I think that is about having creativity and humans at the core of what we do.

Based very much on the insight of unreasonable man, that man is incredibly unreasonable, most decisions are emotional and we’ve used, Leif Stromnes has driven this really from Sydney but globally this new thinking drawing on the learning’s of Daniel Kahneman and various other people.

Darren:

Yeah, behavioural economics.

Ben:

Yes, what’s really driving people’s actions and you go back to treating humans like humans and the industry hasn’t been doing that. It’s been getting excited about new technologies, new media opportunities, programmatic what the fuck.

Programmatic, I can remember DM, people wanted to get less than two cents to send something so you spend all this money and you are getting a tiny response because you’ve made the interaction so incredibly boring.

It’s like trying to get people to run double page magazine ads and they talk about oh you run a single page and people will see it twice as often. To my mind, people will not see it twice as often because you lose the impact.

Darren:

That’s when you are reducing the whole process to a formula and it may have been one of Bill Bernbach’s quotes which is people talk about the art and science but persuasion is all art so the science part of it almost needs to take a secondary or support role there doesn’t it?

Ben:

I think very much so and there is some logic in what we do. Funnily enough, we’ve been talking about this phrase logically illogical as a way of helping us get to the right answer. You can’t just absolve yourself of any rational thought. You need to get to a place and understand it’s the right place but getting there can be an interesting journey. The things we react to are inherently new which is why we are excited about them.

Darren:

Dan Ariely, who’s a behavioural economist, calls it predictably irrational; that human beings are by their nature irrational but the beauty of it is that they are predictable in the way that they are irrational.

Ben:

That’s our challenge though; is that we need to reach people who are unpredictable to define predictable outcomes. That is a challenge and creativity is obviously a very large part of that.

Darren:

So it’s good that you bought up creativity because you wrote an article in Campaign Brief about.

Ben:

You read it.

Darren:

Yeah, creative leadership or leadership in the creative area. It’s interesting isn’t it because one of the points you made is that very few creative leaders such as yourself get any formal training in how to lead. In fact, I think most people rise through the creative ranks on their skill set as a creative person rather than their skillset as a leader.

Ben:

Yes and I think it’s kind of inevitable but I don’t know if it’s the best way to find leaders. I’ve worked with some absolutely brilliant creatives who are far better than me at copywriting and coming up with ideas but they haven’t been good at doing that with others.

So one of the steps you have to make is that you cease to be finding it in yourself and you start seeing it in others and you become a nurturer as much as anything else. You identify the things that have possibilities and then you help them.

I was talking to Lindsey about this the other day and we were talking about flowers and I bought flowers up but it struck me that you could liken a creative agency to someone who grows flowers.

Darren:

I use the term ‘people growers’. You meet people in life that actually nurture and grow other individuals around them. I think that’s very similar to the metaphor that you’ve got.

Ben:

I think it’s absolutely right and I’m very grateful to those who have helped grow me and I’m very proud of some of the people I feel I have grown and I think it’s almost a daily thing. You look at something and you suggest a change and someone has learnt something, hopefully it’s got better and we all keep growing.

There is a slight challenge with that because you want to grow their careers as well but at the same time, you don’t want to lose them. There are times when people need to move on for their own career as well.

Darren:

Or you nurture them so well they replace you.

Ben:

Well yeah, absolutely but that’s the old thing of hire people that are better than you. You need to do that and you need to have that sort of pipeline. We used to talk about if you get hit by a bus who’s going to pop up. And I think I don’t want to get hit by a bus but I know right here I feel quite confident that if I am hit by a bus there’ll be three people.

Darren:

A pool of talent.

Ben:

Who could look forward to replacing my bloodied corpse.

Darren:

As long as they are not driving the bus.

Ben:

Exactly.

Darren:

One’s pushing you in front, ones driving the bus.

Ben:

Obviously Tara Ford’s incredibly capable so we are incredibly blessed in that respect.

Darren:

So it’s interesting because my career as a copywriter I learnt from some terrific creative people two ways. One I learnt from terrific creative people because they were terrific and they would share and then I’d also learn from people that were amazing creative people but horrible, horrible managers and I’d learn how not to do it in the negative.

Ben:

I think that’s often the better lesson. The lessons you probably remember the most are the ones how not to do it and perhaps the how to do it ones are the ones that soak into your skin. I can remember I was such a fucking asshole when I was a junior copywriter and me and my partner would pretty much give all the suits, no matter how important they were, shit and say ‘no, this is the idea because our creative director said this is the idea’.

Our creative director was not someone who would survive today because he ended up head butting a client. You should never do that but you certainly don’t do that today.

Darren:

Not a long term career strategy.

Ben:

No, not at all.

Darren:

We are talking here about leadership internally. Do you think today more than ever there’s a role for our creative leaders to also be doing more externally and what I mean by that is outside of the agencies into the industry?

I’ll give you the reason why I think this is. Everyone’s talking about how innovation and creativity is the way of driving business and driving society and yet we’ve got these businesses with fabulous creative people that are largely wasting their time criticising each other on anonymous blogs whereas they could be turning that to actually contributing to the conversation about society and the role of creativity and innovation in society. The agony of taking a risk, the courage it takes to put up a new idea and stand by it.

Ben:

Yes, there are some big egos that do think about themselves and their career but primarily our role is we are here for our clients. The notion of an agency, we are agents on their behalf so inevitably most of our focus goes into what they need and how we can help them and every now and again I think we do come up with ideas that can help society.

Last year I wrote something, I can’t remember where, but it was actually about how advertising can help combat terrorism because terrorism is essentially a brand finding a target audience and convincing that target audience that that brand is for them and getting them to act and behave in a certain way.

So if you understand that then you actually start thinking about how can we work to stop that. I think some of the smartest people I’ve ever met are found in agencies but we don’t use our brains to solve problems that exist beyond our clients, beyond our daily lives. I think we could and maybe there should be some sort of organisation for that and maybe not something Comms Council would do but we just go out for lunch with some creative leaders and say we need to start solving more problems.

Darren:

Or whether it’s just that individuals start standing up and saying this is what I think. This is a solution to a problem. This is a different way of looking at the problem that we’ve always had. I think one of the things we see in society today is too many people that go one plus two equals three, three plus four equals seven. It’s just this very mechanical way whereas one of the great things about the creative process is that you go yeah, one, three , seven, twelve looks like a good number. Let’s see if that works.

Ben:

I totally agree with you.

Darren:

I’m not saying you just make it up. The creative process is about finding new ways of doing things.

My favourite quote, and it’s not a Bill Bernbach quote, it’s s actually Albert Einstein who says, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.’

And one of the things I love about the creative process is you are actually anti doing the same thing over and over again. In fact, the antithesis of being creative is doing the same thing over and over again.

Ben:

There’s another I heard recently, I think was an Einstein quote also, ’creativity is intellect playing.’ I thought it was such a beautiful expression.

Darren:

I just wonder why we don’t have that leadership.

Ben:

I think it is because we have two focal points. One is our clients, what we need to do for them to build their brands to grow their business and I think the other thing is our careers, and what we need to do to manage those. I think things go out of whack when people focus more on their career than their client.

The award circuit has become a beauty parade but it is important because it helps you find the best people and keep the best people and all those things. But it has become a massive industry in itself and it is far too big. It is forcing work to be about new and shiny rather than enduring ideas.

I think journalism does this too because it’s far more interesting to talk about something like a clothes peg which gives you the weather forecast than it is to talk about the third iteration in a long term campaign. But the thing that is far more important to that client’s growth and that brand is that third part of an enduring campaign. We don’t celebrate the things that are most important to our industry.

Darren:

Well, awards have become an industry in their own right. There’s a huge commercial infrastructure that supports most awards, not all of them. Some are run by industry bodies for raising money to reinvest back into the industry.

How many creative awards do you think there are in the world that you could enter today, this month?

Ben:

Well, there would have to be at least fifty because it feels like there’s at least one a week.

Darren:

There is a website that says seven hundred, because they’re going to each individual market having awards and so on and so forth.

So this is the size of the market, in our own market here in Australia there are so many different awards that are either run by industry bodies, publishers because they’ve tapped into the fact that it’s playing to the ego.

Ben:

Yeah.

Darren:

This is all about ego.

Ben:

You can milk an advertising ego quite a long way and there’s a lot of money to be earned but we don’t enter that many awards here.

We do Cannes, an award, the biggest global show, the biggest local show, D&AD because I think it is kind of the hardest one to win. Those are probably the only three that we definitely do. And then we might do Spikes because of its relationship with Cannes

Darren:

Spikes is also Asia-focused, which is important also I think as well.

Ben:

Good for the network too. And then the industry awards like B&T, AdNews and Mumbrella and, of course, Campaign Brief, which was great to win this year for the creative agency of the year. Fortunately, Campaign Brief does not charge you any money, so no cost for entry, you just have to put the stuff together.

I think it has become a way for people to make money. The entry fees for Cannes this year are astronomical.

Darren:

Well, it’s a publicly listed company now. It actually contributes profit to shareholders and the shareholders want their pound of flesh for their investment and so suddenly it’s the business of awards.

Now here is my other concern. How much do you think the award process reflects the diversity of our industry and more importantly our consumers? I’ve had many conversations and I’ve seen it happen in Asia where local Asian creative doesn’t get up because it doesn’t fit the award winning mould, which is largely the UK, US creative model.

Ben:

I think that depends on the medium. In many ways Asian creativity has driven the changes in print and out of home because understanding that you can’t rely on language; it’s very visual and when that started appearing in certainly DNAD and Cannes, I do think that work gets up.

I remember chairing an Ad fest a few years ago, the film jury and it was fascinating. It’s absolutely fascinating how advertising reflects the culture of a place.

Darren:

Well, it would need to, wouldn’t it?

Ben:

Well yeah, to the extent that you could write a history based on a nation’s advertising output, you kind of know what was going on because of what they were talking about.

The Taiwan stuff they were doing about noodles, I can’t remember what was very moving and human and probably would strike a chord locally. Work that works in Australia doesn’t necessarily travel either because people don’t understand the brand.

There is a brand prejudice that happens in award shows where if it’s got a Nike swish on the end of it, you feel better about it than if it was New Balance, just because that’s a cooler brand, same with an Apple logo.

So when you are looking at an Australian bank internationally people don’t know those banks. They don’t know the brands; you do lose out slightly compared to having some global brand that people will know and understand and can look at and go great idea that’s perfect for that brand. We all have that challenge I think.

Darren:

Yeah, I noticed running a couple of awards shows that the judging panel had a particular style because people recruit judges that have won awards themselves.

Ben:

Yes.

Darren:

So therefore, you are judging a certain type of person. You are getting in as judges the type of people who have won awards. They’ve won awards because they’ve done work of a particular type that’s seen to be good work, and I’m wondering whether there’s not a need for somehow finding a way of getting diversity.

Is it right in this day and age to have people who have won advertising awards judging advertising awards or should we be looking at a greater diversification because I think this is a big issue for the industry?

Ben:

That would be a fascinating double-blind kind of project to actually create three panels, do the way we do it at the moment which is mainly creatives who have won awards as you say. Another one could be mums and dads and kids at home, the real world, and then the marketing managers.

If you think who’s making the decisions. Creative directors who are the ones actually making the decisions on what work gets up, well gets presented to the client, obviously collaborating with the rest of the agency, but ultimately they are looking at ideas and rejecting those so they never happen and picking those flowers.

The CMO’s are incredibly important too in deciding what goes up and then the people at home are going to decide whether it’s successful or not. So those are the three critical ones.

I think what would happen, would be that the ones that won, the actual top winners would be the same because I think again we are judging with our hearts. But then there will be a whole layer of things that people put in that the industry, the creative directors might find sexy, partly because it’s been floating around the world on their blogs but other people might think it’s a bit niche and naff but that’s not answering your question.

I have a vested interest in keeping it the same way it is now.

Darren:

Well everyone that works in the industry does.

Ben:

Yeah, but I also know from all the juries I have been on, that there’s an awful lot of disagreement. DDB runs its own internal awards called the Bernbachs, the two winners, they were joint winners this year were skittles; the campaign that was just for one guy and John Lewis, Elton John. So I reckon those two would have won whoever was judging.

Darren:

Great bits of creative work.

Ben:

And you look down and there were ten finalists and some of those you’d go, I think that’s a little bit self-indulgent and I don’t know I voted for that so I would think that’s a little bit self-indulgent and other bits that might have missed out that would have got up.

Darren:

So you think there is already enough diversity and inclusion in the approach?

Ben:

I don’t think there isn’t enough diversity in the department’s doing the work. Interestingly, I think within the industry, there is quite a lot of diversity because you tend to have accounts services dominated by the women, creativity dominated by men. I think we are closer to fifty / fifty but we still have a way to go.

Clients are, I think probably we have more female CMO’s than males these days, so I think the industry as a whole is quite reflective. We are still very white in this country. You essentially have a jury at work before any ad gets made because they are deciding whether it’s going to happen or not.

Darren:

As a filtering process.

Ben:

Yeah, so then we are talking about okay what’s the best work. I remember there was some Christmas ad, there was a vote for the best Christmas ad that appeared in one of the publications last year. The one that the public picked, no one in the creative industry would have picked. It was a bit naff. It does boil down to the dog or baby factor, that if you do an ad with a dog or baby in it people are going to choose it.

Darren:

It’s a cute factor. It’s why Facebook cats are so popular.

Ben:

It goes back to that whole thing about human beings being unreasonable. You come up with this brilliant idea and people like the one with the baby in it because it’s only human.

Darren:

I think going back to the bit about the human condition it’s interesting that human beings have a way of being and that the brands that most understand their particular audience and their fears, wants and desires.

I wonder sometimes though because you’ve said, for a hundred thousand years human beings have been since the rise of the homo sapiens and them wiping out Cro-Magnon and the other competitors, human beings have evolved. The complexity of life, our ability to deal with it but the actual humans themselves still have the same five fingers and toes and still suffer anxiety but it’s not because they are going to be eaten by a predator. Usually it’s because something is going to happen at work.

Ben:

I’d argue though it’s still existential anxiety. In the past, we worried about what was going to eat us or what we were going to eat or what we were going to shag and whether our genes, well you wouldn’t worry whether your genes were passed on but biologically you were focused on that.

So now we lay awake at night worrying about an idea at work or worrying about a child’s mental state. Those are all existential factors that have changed but the core and I’m no fucking psychologist so this is late night thoughts but the expression of those worries has changed but the core reason behind those worries hasn’t.

We never study ourselves as if we were animals. I’ve never seen the study of human beings as you might study squirrels but we are fucking squirrels at some existence.

Darren:

We operate at that level at some point.

Ben, it’s been terrific catching up, thank you for having a chat.

Ben:

Thank you Darren, I could go on forever, it was lovely talking to you.

Darren:

Just one last question. Last time we caught up was at Nigel Marsh’s skinny. Are you planning to get the kit off and participate in next year’s skinny?

Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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