More effectiveness, less hierarchy: DDB Sydney eyes new era

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 10 December 2018
Priya Patel and Carl Ratcliff

DDB Sydney is eyeing greater effectiveness for clients and less hierarchy internally as new managing director Priya Patel and chief strategy officer Carl Ratcliff make their mark on the creative agency.

Ratcliff’s departure from One Green Bean, where he was CEO, sees him reunite with ECD Tara Ford, who he previously worked with at TBWA London in the early 2000s. The trio form the refreshed leadership team and have big ambitions to build on the momentum of DDB.

Having previously worked at DDB in the UK, Patel recognises the strength in what exists already within the network. She jumped at the opportunity to re-join DDB after relocating to Australia, leaving her role as MD of Y&R London.

“There is energy and enthusiasm in DDB, but it’s about galvanising that, giving it shape and direction. I’ve been focused on making sure we’re all united at bringing that to the fore,” she said.

Patel, who replaced CEO Nicole Taylor in July, has spent the first three months of her role meeting the 200+ employees of DDB. Instead of talking about their career or job title, she tries to connect with each person on a more personal level.

“I don’t talk about anything other than who I am as a human being. I tell them my dog’s name and ask where I should eat in Sydney,” she said.

Connecting with individual employees forms part of her mission to remove the hierarchy from within DDB that can often exist in larger, legacy agencies.

“I’m used to working in a very flat and collaborative structure. I want all of our execs to feel empowered and as if they can come to me and have a chat about a brief,” she said.

“There’s still more work to be done in terms of eroding the sense of hierarchy, which I’ve found is more present in Australian agencies than in London. We’ll be at our strongest when everyone feels empowered and as if they can make a difference.”

To reflect this, DDB is currently looking at the structure of its office and exploring how to better integrate the different departments, such as creative and strategy, to spark a culture of collaboration.

Patel has also brought back Monday morning whips to share the agencies work on its blue-chip clients like Westpac, McDonald’s, Foxtel, Virgin Australia and Volkswagen, as well as progress on pitches.

“The sheer size of DDB can create a rumour mill. We are focused on transparency and being honest with employees. If we lose a pitch, we’ll stand up and say it. In that way, we can better control the narrative and express the change we want to make in the right forum,” Patel said.

The other objective for DDB going into 2019 is effectiveness, which is a passion point for Ratcliff, who joined the business a month ago after spending the last three years at PR agency One Green Bean.

He described taking the role at DDB as “coming home”, with the strategist previously holding roles at Naked Communications, BWM Dentsu and TBWA.

“Frankly, I want us to become more famous for effectiveness. I want us to be as known for our effective work as our creative work. In two years’ time I’d like to see us shortlisted for a bunch of Effies,” he said.

“I want DDB to not just improve the input, but also get better at measuring the outcomes far more effectively than we are doing at the moment.”

On his move from One Green Been, Ratcliff said his real strength lies in planning and strategy and the nature of the PR business was ultimately not for him. Working for a business like Omnicom, which supports from afar rather than dictates the vision, is different to what he’s experienced in working for a business where the founders are still involved, he explained.

“The great thing about DDB is there’s nothing fucked about it,” Ratcliff joked.

“There’s nothing broken so we can spend time getting to know everyone and being inclusive and accessible to people. That gives you permission to share how we are going to get from good to great and build on the success DDB has had.”

Tara Ford 2019Tara Ford

Unashamedly a creative agency

There’s an argument that agencies have jumped at shadows trying to reinvent themselves instead of sticking to their knitting. Some rebranded as ‘digital’ agencies, others launched CX offerings and, most recently, agencies started boasting ‘consultancy’ services.

It’s paid off for a small handful, but largely the agencies that haven’t integrated those capabilities have been left behind.

“We are unashamedly a creative agency, which has the capability to do digital, social, CX and more, but we don’t get sidetracked by that,” Ratcliff said.

Ford describes the DDB network as an “iconic environment” to create big mainstream ideas.

“We’re unashamedly a creative agency, but also unashamedly mainstream. We have big clients that have to sell things and that shouldn’t be embarrassing. I’d much rather work on a real Maccas project where the ambition is to sell a lot of burgers than a niche project where you can do whatever you want because it’s pro bono,” Ford said.

“We bring inspiration. Consultancies can’t do that in the same way.”

Patel considers a lack of confidence one of the main threats to the ad industry, with agencies too concerned about their competitors; a bugbear recently outlined by CEO Andrew Little in a separate interview with AdNews.

“The industry has lost its confidence over the last few years. There’s a thinking that if we’re not a consultancy or a digital-first mobile agency, we don’t have any value,” she said.

“I don’t know if we ever get credit for how well we do. We run commercial businesses and output millions of dollars of work every day, seamlessly and relentlessly. There’s a real value in that kind of persistency and we forget that because we’re looking for the big peaks, and rightly so.

“Our ambition is to create more of those big famed moments, but the truth is we make business grind. We’re driving sales for Virgin and Volkswagen every day. Sometimes I think that’s what gets forgotten about with DDB because it’s steady.”

In 2019, with the new leadership team in place in both Sydney and Melbourne, Patel said DDB has the potential to achieve better results for its clients and also achieve the recognition it deserves.

“There’s a whole movement where people are realising, if they want quality thinking – if they want a single big idea that can transform business – they’ve got to come to a creative agency,” she said.

“Agencies hopefully are finding their confidence again in their skillset. We can solve your business problem with a more imaginative solution. That’s worth something and that’s worth paying.”

The Work

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