DDB leaders set on turning agency’s fortunes around

DDB CEO/president Peter McGuinness and chief creative officer Ewan Paterson

Fuhgeddaboudit! The past is past.  They are looking forward.  That’s the word from the two executives now guiding DDB/Chicago. And believe us when we say DDB has desperately needed some real guiding for quite a long while.

Those two DDB leaders, if you hadn’t guessed by now, are chief creative officer Ewan Paterson and CEO and president Peter McGuinness.

After two failed attempts to connect over the past several weeks, we finally caught up with the men in charge during an impromptu lunch at DDB’s Aon Center offices, which have been made noticeably airier in recent months at the behest of Paterson. The chief creative wanted the space to have a more modern, open feel than it did for much of the time the ad agency has been housed in the tower.

McGuinness was the first to arrive in the conference room where we were waiting and noshing on a sandwich.  It took us a few more minutes than it usually does to formulate that all-important first impression of him.

But it was clear right away McGuinness isn’t the shy and retiring type. Quite the contrary.  Cocky — though not to the point of insufferable — would be more like it.

McGuinness and Paterson make an interesting pair

Decked out in jeans, brown boots, white shirt and an expensive-looking brown herringbone wool jacket, McGuinness looked to have given some thought to his appearance, but not too, too much.

Though we wouldn’t have guessed it, McGuinness was actually born in northwest suburban Buffalo Grove. But he moved at a very early age to Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, where he spent the rest of his formative years in Bruce Springsteen territory.

In fact, McGuinness is a huge fan of the rocker, who has something of a cocky air about him too, come to think of it. But McGuinness also exudes a certain polish that only could have come from considerable time spent in the biggest capitals of advertising — New York and London. 

He told us one of his reasons for accepting the DDB job was that he had, in essence, done those two cities and was ready for a new challenge. So back to his roots in the much-less-familiar-to-him Chicago he came.

Next to arrive in the conference room was Paterson, who was attired in the someone what more nondescript look that we have found to be commonplace in creative departments around Chicago. Compared to McGuinness, Paterson comes off as very retiring — and a bit hard to understand, because he tends to talk rather quietly in a somewhat thick Scottish brogue.

So it’s an interesting pairing, the two of them. But at least they were there for a chat.  And chat we did.

Leaders want new clients to be the right fit

Yes, they are busy developing — and executing — a game plan for turning around DDB.  They are definitely on the hunt for new business, which was one reason our meeting kept getting delayed. 

Pitches take time and lots of preparation, and they have been doing a few of them lately, said McGuinness, who has been fully on board only a little over a couple of months. Will a beer brand wind up on the client roster to replace the gaping hole left by the departure of Anheuser-Busch, and its Budweiser and Bud Light brands? 

“We certainly have beer experience,” said McGuinness, who was nonetheless noncommittal about finding a replacement client.

If they can avoid it, McGuinness and Paterson don’t want to grab new business — in beer or any other category — just to fatten the bottom line.  Both DDB leaders want the agency’s new clients to be the right fit.  Ultimately, McGuinness said he wants growth at DDB to come from 30 percent new business and around 70 percent from existing clients.

Creative department developing a truly global feel

Because DDB now has PepsiCo.’s Sierra Mist account, for instance, the agency is hopeful it can make further inroads into the rich treasure trove of Pepsi brands.  We’ll see.

As for Paterson’s creative department, it has been undergoing something of a major overhaul in the 15 or so months he’s been running it.  He wants the department of about 90 people to have a truly global feel.  Most recently, he’s imported talent from Argentina, after bringing over several buddies he worked with in England.

Paterson wants the agency known for doing superior work

Paterson doesn’t seem to mind if he appears not overly gung-ho about the great Chicago talent Marc USA/Chicago executive creative director (and former DDB creative) John Immesoete is so high on. 

And Paterson isn’t interested in assigning teams to specific clients, as do many agencies.  He prefers a “pooling” system, where any creative can be assigned to work on whatever client whenever the need arises.

Paterson also told us he isn’t interested in having just one client that serves, essentially, as the flagship account to which an agency invariably points when it wants to talk about what a creative powerhouse it may be. 

At CHI/London, where he was previously employed, Paterson said the agency became known as a top creative shop because it was doing superior work for clients up and down its roster.

Leaders’ plan to develop DDB’s own digital capabilities 

And what of the creative so far from DDB under Paterson? It would be too early to render any definitive judgement on Paterson’s effort. But let’s just say we’ve yet to be majorly impressed by some of the output we’ve seen — most notably some of the State Farm work that seems comedically undercooked and disconnected from the iconic brand it is supporting.

McGuinness and Paterson said repeatedly they intend to transform DDB into a full-service shop, which, as we all know by now, means an agency with a full-blown digital offering.  Tribal DDB/Chicago apparently still exists in some fashion, but McGuinness and Paterson are intent on developing their own digital capabilities separate from whatever Tribal DDB/Chicago is still doing.

Leaders pursue goal of turning DDB’s fortunes around

We couldn’t let our all-too-short lunch chat end without inquiring about Mark Gross, and the DDB leaders’s take on their high-ranking creative’s little Facebook stunt we wrote at length about last week.  (By the way, that Miller Lite visual was gone from Gross’s Facebook page within 12 hours after our story appeared.)

It was obvious McGuinness really didn’t want to go there. And certainly didn’t want to suggest Gross had done something grossly improper.  “He (Gross) is a great guy,” said McGuinness. “I think he was just having a little fun,” added the new DDB CEO.

With that, McGuinness and Paterson were gone — getting on with the urgent business of turning around the fortunes of one of Chicago’s iconic ad agencies.

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com.

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