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Agencies need to talk the language of clients, while going from zero to one hundred on bravery instead celebrating incremental success, could also push clients away from brave work, says DDB global chief executive officer Wendy Clark.

Clark, one of the few agency CEO’s to have also spent time in a global client-side job, says an all or nothing approach often results in nothing, when smaller steps would work better for clients.

Speaking to The Drum during Spikes Asia, she says, “A lot of times I see us try to go from zero to one hundred on bravery, and as a person who spent the majority of my career on the client side, it's so unlikely that that's going to happen that way. So I think part of this is unpacking your ambition for a client down into logical, methodical steps of moving that client forward on a path, and celebrating internally, and with them.

“Incremental movement is really important, so we tend to do an 'all or nothing' and then we get nothing, but if you can go from one to five, and then five to twelve, and then twelve to seventeen, and suddenly you're down the path. I think incremental success should be recognized and celebrated,” she adds.

She also says that the industry would be better off accepting different forms of bravery, rather than the big campaigns that win at wards shows.

“It doesn't have to be a Cannes-winning campaign to be credited as being brave. We have some clients that are doing really interesting things in packaging, or really interesting things with their employees and employee communication, which are sort of massively interesting, brave, different, unique and standout.”

During the event, Clark showed the video case study for its work for Skittles during the Superbowl this year. Rather than spend on a big TV ad to a lot of people, the company subverted the idea and went all out creating an ad for one person. Through smart social ads and content, DDB then created a moment in which people could go onto Facebook live to watch this one person watching the ad that was made for him. The live stream attracted millions, creating a buzz for Skittles that was a fraction of the cost of a TV ad placement during the game.

“Clients a lot of times point out the Skittles ad,  obviously there was massive bravery on their side to do that, and a lot of times I think that the agency gets celebrated, but the client was massively brave. So in summary, I think celebration on equal sides, thinking about incremental movement, and then explaining the definition of objects that are brave as the last step. That taken together helps to kind of nudge things forward,” she explains.

Also nodding to the Skittles work, Clark says bravery is also about “patience and perseverance, because it's not just going to happen in a flash.”

“What's never said either is ‘Every single piece of work I showed today was dead at one point.’ So, you doesn't just rock up with your presentation and the client goes ‘that's fantastic’. I mean, the Skittles work was dead five times, you have to have a certain measure of perseverance and endurance, to listen really well, take on board the feedback, not get dispirited, think about how the idea can still work and navigate through; but it's a lot of navigation, persistence, and perseverance that goes with it,” she says.

Having the pragmatism and empathy for a client is clearly drawn from fresh client experience but in terms of how useful it is now, Clark sees herself as being able to talk two languages.

“I do think of myself as bilingual to a certain degree and I can deconstruct things in a meeting where the team might be like, ‘Oh, that didn't go well’, I'll say, ‘No, no. See you missed, it's not, here's what they think.’ I have an incredible amount of empathy for that role and the very tough aspects of that role are very real.”

One of the key differences in language right now, says Clark is that agencies get caught up in being a ‘creative’ business and selling ‘creative services’ when clients are using the word ‘growth’. While she says that ultimately creativity fuels growth and is therefore what agencies do, simply reframing discussions around growth can help agencies gain a brands attention.

“When I'm talking about DDB as a brand, we are in the growth business. Never get confused about that. I get a little bit of shoulder movement on it, ‘Well wait a minute, I think we're in the creativity business’ but it's not meant to be exclusive. Really if we're not doing creativity to yield an outcome that's around growth, then we're not meeting the agreement of what it is to be an agency. There’s a huge role for creativity in that, but the ultimate accountability, the ultimate measurement for our clients is not ‘were you creative enough?’ it's ‘did you drive enough growth?’ And so, creativity is the single biggest lever we can pull to drive that. It's just about a construct of having those in the right order from a mindset perspective, which has been helpful and clarifying for our organization, I think. It's what we have to offer and what we have to sell but that's not necessarily the language that our clients speak to us. So we have to make the connects through, ‘What we have on offer is growth, as delivered through creativity’. And then they go, ‘Ah, yeah, I'll take some of that.’”

Bravery is also a topic which she says is 'deeply personal' as the switch from Coca-Cola to DDB was labelled by some as brave. However, Clark says she took the role as she really wanted to become a CEO and run a company. The move was based on interests and passion. The urge to go into a CEO position is also driven by her inherent desire to show people she’s made of something more, which has come from turning the feeling of being underestimated into a positive force.

“Underestimation, I think, as a woman in business, it comes with the territory. There have been many times throughout my career where people have said ‘Ah, well she just got that job because she's a woman.’ You can get angry about that or you just settle the score. It was widely understood when I went to Coke that my boss Joe Tripodi at the time was looking for a woman for his team, he didn't have a female direct report. I think the way everyone got over the fact. I used to, especially my younger more youthful years, want to get in a fight about it and you realize, that's only just proving their narrative. That somehow on some level they think you're insecure about that. So you just can't, you have to be unstoppable, and it's totally fine now. I'm the most competitive person, the minute you do that you land right in my cross hairs. There's a target on you, and I will crush you. I can't un-program myself from that,” she explains, clarifying, “In a very mental way, not a physical way.”

“The minute you get frustrated, you're off focus, you're wasting energy and you're buying into their narrative, so they're winning.  You cannot allow that to happen. You've got to use it, you've got to take that fuel and go.”

The fuel that powers Clark may be why many refer to her as a hard working CEO, something she’s very proud of. She tells the story that the driver that received her from the airport in Singapore ahead of Spikes Asia said “someone told me you’re the hardest working CEO we’ve ever had” and says it was a massive compliment.

“The driver knows I'm willing to put my sleeves up and get into it and that’s probably the highest compliment anyone could pay me. I want to be known as someone who's willing to get in it, not delegate, not profess from on high. We are a no figurehead organisation and that starts with me - everyone is accountable, everyone works hard, and everyone's part of driving our organization forward. Through our clients, we're great at what we do. I think, to turn that into some advice, it’s about not being above doing anything and following your passion,” she concludes.

Clark famously took the personal assistant role at an agency in order to get started in the industry, despite having the qualifications for more, as she just wanted to get into the industry as fast as she could. It is clear that this humble ability to just get going and chip in, no matter the level or type of work, has stayed with Clark. As agencies face rapidly changing times, it could be this lack of ego that drives DDB’s ability to grow brands, with or without calling it creativity.