Wendy Clark is, by her own admission, a relentless, glass-half-full-type optimist.
For the last seven years, that glass was filled with Coke. Clark was one of Coca-Cola’s top senior execs, who worked her way up to become the company’s president of sparkling brands and strategic marketing.
When Clark took a sabbatical last year, reportedly to help Hillary Clinton work on the social media and marketing aspects of her presidential campaign, many people speculated she may not return back to the beverage giant. She did, three months later, but in November came the surprising announcement that she was leaving Coca-Cola altogether to join Omnicom ad agency DDB, becoming its North American CEO and president.
Surprising because it’s rare for a brand marketer to switch to agency-side — not least a brand marketer so revered by marketers and agency execs alike. Even her biggest competitor, Brad Jakeman, the president of PepsiCo’s global beverage group, was quick to tweet her praises when the big move was announced:
Memorable work lead by Clark at Coca-Cola included the global rollout of the “Share a Coke” campaign and “One World, One Game,” the brand’s largest-ever marketing campaign, for the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Before joining Coke she was SVP of advertising at AT&T, whose ad agency at the time was Interbrand. The CEO of Interbrand at the time was Chuck Brymer, now the CEO of DDB Worldwide. Over the past year Brymer and multiple people at Omnicom — right the way up to the holding company’s CEO John Wren — had conversations with Clark about switching to DDB.
Clark told Business Insider her least favourite interview question is: Where do you see yourself in five years? “If you asked me five years ago, I could not have planned for this at all,” she said.
But having been at Coke for seven years and having an incredible experience along the way via four Olympics and two World Cups, Clark admitted “a little bit of muscle memory kicks in.” Now she wants to take that experience and apply it to DDB clients like McDonald’s, Clorox, and Mars.
Clark said when she first told people she was joining DDB, people asked why she was moving to a “traditional agency,” as if it was a negative thing.
“For me it’s a positive; I come from a place with a 129-year history. I love heritage and legacy,” Clark said.
For instance, sometimes at Coke, when Clark felt she was getting writer’s block on a project, she’d take a trip down into the Coke archives and look at the marketing from previous years — coupons, newspaper ads, briefs — “Everything from your heritage points toward your future,” she said.
DDB also offered Clark a new opportunity, 24-years into her career: It’s a transformation job and she has ultimate accountability for leading the agency. “John and Chuck have given me enough rope to either hang myself or pull us forward,” Clark said.
DDB is one of the most famous ad agency names. Founded in 1949 by Bill Bernbach, Ned Doyle, and Mac Dane, the network has produced iconic campaigns over the decades — from Volkswagen’s “Think Small” series, to Avis’ “We Try Harder Because We’re Number 2.” But as AdBrands points out, recently “the network wrestled with weaker performance at some key outposts, especially on smaller regional accounts, and the main advertising agency was sometimes overshadowed by its digital subsidiary Tribal.”
Clark says this campaign for IAMS, telling the tale of a boy and his dog, is an example of where DDB continues to shine
The job now is to continue to create stand-out advertising that stands the test of time and builds brand DDB, while meeting the challenges of the 21st century — such as the rise of digital platforms that dis-intermediate the agency business and the constant pressure on client marketing budgets squeezing agency fees.
Throughout our conversation, Clark always has a positive take on the new challenges ahead of her and DDB — but while she’s optimistic, she’s not blind to them either.
“By the way, being glass-half-full doesn’t mean I’m a Pollyanna that doesn’t see that challenges,” Clark said. “Clients are under intense pressure right now. The business challenges are unprecedented. With a 90-day report card, you have got to show growth and improvement in the course of that, and sometimes clients can lose sight of their long-term strategy and make short-term decisions.”
We ask whether she’s so optimistic on the agency business because Coke is a client that has famously taken a more long-term approach, with its “2020 vision” — a predominantly marketing-focused business plan launched in 2010 with the aim of doubling revenue in 10 years.
Clark said: “Actually I think you could be more critical of how Coke at the moment has been very short-sighted. It’s very difficult when you’re under pressure as a publicly-traded company.”
But those challenges have always been there — clients have always been looking for cost savings, nobody ever voluntarily asked to pay more — and Clark said the idea often floated that the “traditional ad agency model is dead” is simply not true.
“I won’t buy it. For the last decade, people have been trying to predict the death of the agency.” she said. “By the way, there is always a way to find money for a good idea. In my 24-years of working, I can’t tell you there’s been a single time where a great idea does not get funding. You can get into debates about procurement and budgets, but when there’s a great idea, it’s funny how that budget just gets found.”
Clark will be hoping her energy permeates the creatives at DDB in order keep turning out those great ideas. In fact she doesn’t just hope it, she believes it.
She said: “When a group of like-minded, talented, caring people are aligned to a single ambition, steeped in belief, there’s nothing we can’t do. This is what we did at Coke and this is what we’ll do at DDB. I sent my leadership team 10 observations from my first two weeks this weekend. Underlying all of them is massive potential and our collective belief that we’ll fully realise that potential. And more.”
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