Where now for DDB UK?

Hail and farewell then to James Best, chief people and strategic officer DDB Worldwide and, more prosaically, group chairman DDB UK, Middle East and Africa.

The clotted proliferation of titles hint at how well this scion of essentially British Boase Massimi Pollitt has insinuated himself into the global superstructure of DDB, post takeover. Or perhaps, more precisely, how important he has been to the organisation, even though no one managed to condense that importance into a snappy job title.

For all that, Best really is the last of the guard to change. A graduate trainee in account planning who started at BMP in 1975, he typifies the urbane, Oxbridge, collegiate culture that characterised BMP during its heyday in the seventies and eighties. Publicly, the agency developed an enviable positioning that combined skilful account planning (the ‘P’, Stanley Pollitt, being generally acclaimed its co-discoverer with JWT’s Stephen King) with the highest quality creativity – particularly in television advertising. Privately, its senior executives enjoyed a complicity in left-leaning politics (Martin Boase, a “bit of an old reactionary”, excepted) and horses – betting on them, owning them, riding them and, in the case of Peter Jones, acquiring fluency in tick tack.

Handling change

Handing the baton on to the next generation of management is a difficult, some would say the most difficult, problem facing successful entrepreneurial agencies. It is a time when old and important relationships, particularly client relationships, can be overlooked in pursuit of the meretricious and new. And it requires a realistic adjustment from a driven, entrepreneurial culture to a more managerial one.

DDB did well to harness the BMP culture, and much of its executive talent, for as long as it did. But it has dealt less competently with effecting the generational change. To be sure, DDB UK, the successor to BMP DDB, has safeguarded top clients like Volkswagen, Hasbro and Johnson & Johnson. And it has continued to earn industry esteem – it was IPA Effectiveness agency of the year in 2006 and agency of the year in the 2006 British Television Awards, for instance. But the cracks in its panoply have been showing rather too publicly for its own good.

The Hammersley affair

These were exemplified by the Paul Hammersley affair. At the time Hammersley, brought in as a chief executive to replace Chris Powell, looked an inspired hiring. He appeared to have (and indeed does have) many of the qualities that a reinvigorated agency would require, chiefly managerial pedigree, lots of drive and a willingness to do things differently. The fact that, after initial success with the Weetabix win, it all went so disastrously wrong has exposed the depth of DDB’s transition problem.

A change agent like Hammersley was unlikely to have the emollience to deal tactfully with DDB?s consensus culture. And so it proved, with Hammersley growing increasingly frustrated and eventually defecting to the new Sir Frank Lowe vehicle. DDB European president Michael Bray?s evident bitterness over Hammersley’s departure and the embarrassingly convoluted search for a successor chief executive have only served to highlight the fragility of DDB?s standing. DDB’s weakened hold over Unilever, with the loss of PG Tips, and its failure to retain The Guardian, bear witness to this aggravated demoralisation. The all-too-rapid departure of £15m Garmin this week may be part of the same malaise.

Into this quagmire will shortly step Stephen Woodford, the long-awaited new chief executive. Woodford has many qualities that would resonate well in traditional BMP culture: he’s urbane, affable and just the kind of consensus manager to deal successfully with DDB UK’s baronial tensions. Furthermore, in theory his previous job at Engine makes him the perfect candidate for weaning DDB UK from dependency on 30-second ad culture and moving it on to a more rounded marketing services offering.

In the short-term, there is little doubt Woodford will be able to apply balm to open wounds. But in the longer run, can anything, or anyone, fix DDB’s problems?


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