She started off as a receptionist in an agency, rising all the way up to the top. She is one rare example of someone who returned to agency life, after spending time at the client's end. Listen to her story with a liberal dose of leadership lessons, for the times that we live in.
Prasad Sangameshwaran: Wendy, this is your second quick visit to India, after becoming the global CEO of DDB...
Wendy Clark: Since assuming the global role, this is the second time I am coming back. I've been here several times before with Coca-Cola. So India is one of my favorite countries to visit by far.
PS: People always quit advertising agencies to join clients and then say goodbye to advertising. Yours is an exception to that rule where you came back to advertising from the client's side.
PS: So what prompted that?
WC: Well, you know, I think people think that there might be some kind of master scheme or plan there. That definitely wasn't the case. There was just an opportunity. As I learned more. I joined originally as the CEO of North America, for DDB. And it just felt like there was a real opportunity at the time for DDB, obviously an agency that bears Bill Bernbach's name -- to me, one of the most important figures in advertising history. And certainly at the time, three and a half years ago in the US, it didn't feel like the agency was quite at its best moment and you know, being a part of a revival along with a couple thousand people in the US that felt really exciting, now look we're chasing the global opportunity now. You don't plan for those things, but the opportunities find them.
PS: What's your favorite Bill Bernbach quote?
WC: Oh, there are so, so many. By far, one of my favorites is, an idea can turn into magic or dust depending on the talent, the rubs against it. And I think that is so true in our business as a talent business, people business. He was so prophetic. I mean, honestly, we could quote him for days and days and days. I want you to think that advertising is a science was another great one. He was just so visionary. You think about our agency is 70 years old now, to have the vision he had, so long ago. It's remarkable, and honestly quite a privilege to walk alongside some of the things that he created and, you know, today help nurture his agency to what he envisioned it could be.
PS: He spoke about the importance of talent many many years back. And today we are in a position when the talent from advertising is drained out into the new economy. So what are you doing to plug the holes?
WC: I don't see it quite the same way. If you think about Facebook and the Googles, and YouTubes, I think they're actually creating an interest now an influx of talent that is really great for us. So I kind of look at it in the aggregate, and say, especially if I take India for example, our leadership team is comprised of people from the publisher side, from the client side, who come up to the agency side. I think it's quite vibrant. Facebook and others in the publisher side have contributed great talent to that and I see quite a vibrance. In fact, there's probably quite a talent war and I feel like we do kind of battle back and forth a little bit for talent from time to time. But that's a good thing.
PS: But all the money seems to be residing there, and hence all the talent seems to be going that side. How do you battle that?
WC: Well, um, I don't know that it's all about money, hopefully not all about money. I think the product itself is a real attraction. And so we spend a lot of time focused on making sure that our product is obviously fantastic and great and, you know, impactful for our clients first and foremost, but that also functions as an incredible recruiting tool for us. So when we have great product, we have great results, that helps attract talent that want to come and be part of that at the agency. So that's helpful.
PS: Bringing the focus to agency heads, what are the top five priorities for agency heads at Omnicom group agencies?
WC: I speak for myself, I can't speak for other agency heads. And first and foremost is people and we've already spent a great amount of time talking to people. Ours is a fairly simple business. And it's a great Usain Bolt quote, that we use a lot in our company which is, "it's not complicated, but it's hard to do". They asked him, you got to run from here to here really quickly. It's not complicated, but it's just hard.
And, and our business isn't complicated. It's a talent business. And that talent creates incredible product. And that product creates incredible impact and, and then our clients are successful, and then in turn, were successful. But it centers on people. And so yes, that number one on my priorities, and my focus and my time is on people. The second thing, then is the product and you know, making sure that we've got both the people to do that, but also sort of the broad vision of what is going to impact today's marketplace, what consumers are reacting to, and spending time with, you know how those brands and companies that we work with will succeed in today's marketplace, and we have to have a very broad understanding of that. So people and product would be first. I think from there, I would go to innovation, and really thinking about the role that innovation and new thinking plays in our business. I can reflect on the time when I was a client and you know, you can't really be static as an agency and I wanted my agencies with very dynamic, very forward looking very progressive and constantly thinking about what's new and the latest and greatest. And so, I do think we have to have innovative thinking and you know, make sure that we're at the forefront of the marketplace.
From there, I'd probably go to culture and the culture of our agencies which is made up of all the things I just mentioned, by the way, but the culture of our agencies is very, very important. If you're a people business you've got to be a great place to work and an inside culture I put our diversity initiatives and programs, our wellness programs for employees, obviously pay and remuneration. There are a lot of pieces inside the type of company we are, and the type of place we are to work for. And then finally without question, I have to say profit I mean we are a for profit business. We are in business to be successful. And so I have to keep in mind that growing revenue, growing profit is one of the ambitions my boss will have for me, and I have for myself and our team. We obviously I think profitability is a metric of success for us. If we're profitable, then we're doing well.
PS: I can't help but think that two of the largest agencies in the world, both named after their legendary founders (David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach) are currently led by CEOs who started off at the bottom rung of the agency ladder. I'm sure you know that Ogilvy's John Seifert started his career in the mailroom and is now the CEO. Similarly, you started off as the receptionist of an agency. How does it help? Do you see things differently when you are right at the top of the organisation?
WC: Well, there's no question that it shapes you, and it shapes you indelibly. I think when you've arguably been at one of the lowest positions in an organization, you get a lens on the view of that organization in a way that kind of marks you and I had many positive experiences in that role.
But many times, people would brush by me, or see me as inconsequential or not important. And when I entered the building yesterday I walked up and said hello to the receptionist, I really do try to go out of my way to make those people feel seen because one day they may be the CEO and I may be working for them.
I think when you rise from the bottom, you do get an incredible advantage and vision from having that seat, like being able to say to people in our organization, look, I've done just about every role in between. So if I started there and I am here, while it hasn't been linear at one organization, I've worked my way up, I know what that feels like. I know what it feels like to be passed over for an opportunity.
I know what it feels like to have to leave an organization start again, I mean, all those experiences about part of, you know, building a career, building a journey. I think I've had many of them.
PS: If I could sum it up, leaders like you bring in a lot of empathy to the top job, right?
WC: Well, I hope so. I think empathetic leaders are the best leaders. Quite honestly, if I reflect on the leaders that I've worked with that have had the most impact on me, they were empathetic. I do feel like women particularly have an advantage in this regard. Women are the more empathetic gender. And I think too often actually, you see women in leadership who try to push away their empathy and try to be coarser or harder. I try to do actually the opposite.
I like to really look in people's eyes, I like to understand how they're doing and their children and their wives. And these are all really important aspects. For them to be successful at the office, they need to know that I care about them as a whole person, not just for what they've done lately for our business. And so I do try to do that as much as I can. Sometimes, I suppose, when things are busy, maybe I don't get to do as much as I'd like to. But I think in every interaction, we all have the opportunity to remember that we're human. And I think probably the lesson I use most in leadership is just that very simple golden rule that we were taught as children to treat others how we'd like to be treated, and that reflects back on being a receptionist too.
PS: Moving to the topic of diversity, which has occupied the mind space of advertising leadership for most of last year, what are some unfinished tasks? Is the job half done?
WC: Well, I don't even know, if half is the right measure. Since I've been working for almost three decades, and I can sort of reflect on the beginning of my career to now and say, you know, we've made, I think great progress. But has it been enough progress? Never. No, absolutely not. There's still a tremendous work to do here. And around the rest of the world where, you know, we need everyone to feel regardless of their race, their gender, their culture, their religion, their ability, their age, their sexual orientation, whatever makes them, them is why we want them here. And I think it's actually been a frustration in many ways, in my career, where we've hired people, and they try to become something different and they don't realize that.
I think the greatest gift you can do is actually bring your whole self to work every day. When you feel that you can, and that you're fully embraced for who you are, that's when you're going to do your best work. There is evidence abounds behind that, that people who feel confident, feel accepted, feel embraced, feel wanted, for exactly who they are, have the opportunity to unleash their talents in a way that they wouldn't otherwise. And I think it's absolutely incredibly important. So, culturally, it's very clear what the mandate is for us in our environments in our offices that every day when those associates cross the threshold of our agencies around the world and 100 countries, they feel it they can really bring their full self to work.
PS: On the point of bringing your full self to work, can that happen in a scenario where there is not enough work-life balance? But again, in this business, you know, it's like, notorious for swinging all the way to the other end. We've been hearing about suicides as a result of lack of work life balance in agencies and so on....
WC: I'm not really a fan of the term work life balance. Because I can tell you across my career when someone has told me, I'm a mother of three children and, you know, husband and other commitments, when someone has told me to balance out, it felt unattainable. It felt like something that I can possibly do.
I prefer to talk about work life integration, where progressive companies allow associates to work in a manner that is right for them and in a way that works for them. And so that can mean flexible work hours, that can be flexible work accommodations, that can be working from different geographies and locations, whatever that needs to be. I think increasingly, companies are very clear now on what it's going to take to accommodate talent in the way that they want to feel, again, live their whole lives.
And technology, of course, is a huge enabler of that. It's very helpful for us, because technology can allow real time connection and we can have live podcasts with people, no matter what location they are, that obviously helps them. So that enables, I think, our associates to have the work life integration that works for them in a way that it does. But I think it's a fair point to call out that mental wellness is a real challenge in the industry. And I think it's one that we have to spend some time on and assure that in our very high pressure time deliveries and competitive marketplaces where we're competing with one another, we don't lose the plot and allow that to become so pressurized and challenging for our associates that that we've gone way too far in mental illness, so we are acutely aware of that.
PS: The other issue that CEOs across the world, including you, have faced is the challenge of putting business first. And the repercussions of that, as we saw in the Time's Up incident (where Wendy Clark had to defend herself for having made a wrong hire). What are some lessons to be picked up from that and how to do business in a way that it's not seen as being putting only commercial interests forward?
WC: Well, I think, again, it's probably sort of building on the last answer. I think a lot of times it's just sometimes taking a breath and taking a beat. We move very fast sometimes and we don't take adequate time for decision making. And I think that's one thing that we can be accused of for sure. The other thing back to the question before that is diversity. We have diversity of teams at the table. And those teams leadership and management teams are really empowered to lead the business together, not in a singular fashion, I think you're going to get diversity points of view that help you make good or right decisions for the business. And so, you know, when we talk about diversity, and we talk about it a lot, and or, in some cases, it's sort of the right thing to do. It's a very good business practice.
If we're trying to serve the population of Indian billion people, plus, we've got to have people from different geographies, different social strata, different cultural backgrounds, different experiences in order to fully understand the landscape of the marketplace, this is good business. And so when you have those diverse teams, those teams are going to push on each other. They're going to debate they're going to question decisions and the question authority, all those things are the right things to do.
PS: But if we look at the typical way agency talent is hired, it seems to be exactly the opposite. It's all about people with similar taste, similar lifestyles, similar social strata, and even if you don't belong to that strata, you too blend into becoming one among them. So in that scenario, the diversity battle is lost right before it began.
WC: Well, I'd say we're trying to push against that. And so I think it's fair to say, perhaps principally, you see a lot of similarity in people and certainly people at agencies like creativity, they can do much the same things. So we have to push against it. And we've been spending a little bit of time this week and certainly more broadly in the network talking about our internship programs and interns are a great way to bring in diverse people from diverse backgrounds and in through young eyes, fresh eyes, and and have us be almost reverse mentored by them. And so our internship programs are really key way to make sure that we're creating diverse recruitment into our agencies in one hand, and that we're allowing that to influence us
PS: One question is about the remuneration model of agencies. We know that it's been debated for a very long time. But digital agencies seem to be dictating the trend by offering clients outcome based pricing as opposed to the output based pricing that agencies have followed for a while. How will that pan out?
WC: I can draw on my client experience on this. And I think outcome based pricing is fair, as long as we're paid for great outcomes, as well as expected outcomes and obviously have some vulnerability if we don't create the outcomes that we agreed to. So when I was at Coke, we had what I would call value based compensation that was based on the value that the agency delivered. And that had an upside for the agencies too. Those who have created more value than targeted, got more pay. So I think that there's incredible opportunity in outcome based pricing. We are very open to structuring things with compensation that is tied to performance and be measured on that performance. And again, my only ask is a reasonableness that if there's going to be some risk aspect to that, but there's also some benefit to that too, because then we're incentivised to overachieve. And I think that's how it should be.
PS: So you're an advocate of outcome based remuneration?
WC: Certainly, from a performance perspective, performance based compensation can be something. As long as it's fairly instituted, that can be, I think, a great incentive for the agency.
PS: The other thing that's been debated upon is the future of the holding company model.
WC: I think at the core of your question is, you know, what's the relationship between the network and holding company? And is there a value exchange there? And there certainly is. A two second advocacy for Omnicom: I think for us at DDB with Bill Bernbach in our name, with creativity at the core of our belief that creativity is the most powerful force in business, only Omnicom as the most creatively driven holding company feels like a perfect connection. Their beliefs match our beliefs. I think you probably wouldn't see that synergy, they probably would have changed our direction or made different decisions. Those are really important markers to our clients, to our associates, and to the holding company, quite frankly. So we don't necessarily see it the way that you see it. But, you know, I think we come to work every day to disprove that. We should probably meet in a year or two and see where we are.
PS: And the final question is on the role of the agency CEO in a world that's increasingly being dominated by holding companies.
WC: I suppose the simplest way to say that is, I feel very empowered by John Wren (Omnicom Group CEO) to run our network globally. He has certain expectations of our network and I am held accountable to delivering on those. We have a great fluid relationship in that regard. We have a frequency of meetings and we're doing that. So I'm pretty clear he doesn't want to do my job. And I'm pretty clear, I don't want to do his job.
So I think that we have a good mutuality in our roles. You know, he has a very large responsibility that includes DDB, but many, many, many agencies. And so I get some of his attention, but I think he empowers and expects me to deliver on our performance and I try to do them.