Feature

Wendy Clark vows to bring fervour to hot seat at Dentsu

Wendy Clark, Dentsu Aegis Network's incoming global CEO, has plenty of client and creative experience, gained from Coca-Cola and DDB respectively. But what will she bring to the Japanese media giant beside her love of red?

Wendy Clark vows to bring fervour to hot seat at Dentsu

Wendy Clark likes red as a colour because she says it shows "fervour". She wore red shoes in the photos that she personally arranged for the announcement of her appointment as global chief executive of Dentsu Aegis Network.

Red is the signature colour of Coca-Cola, where she used to work as a senior marketer until 2016, when she joined Omnicom’s creative network, DDB, and rose to become global chief executive.

And during her talks with Dentsu about her new job, she was taken with the story of Hishiro Mitsunaga, a war correspondent who founded the Japanese media company in 1901 and had a red business card – with a message on the back that said: "Sacrifice to News and Advertising."

Mitsunaga launched the advertising operation because he saw how it could fund his company’s news reporting and he chose red for his business card because "the colour was emblematic of our fervour", according to Dentsu’s history on its website, which Clark quotes approvingly.

"120 years ago, this man understood an ad-supported business model and he was willing to sacrifice and had fervour for the business," she explains, speaking on the day that Campaign broke the news of her appointment in April. "It is a deep responsibility for me to step into this business. I recognise the history within the company and the heritage and the legacy, and I have equal fervour, 120 years later."

With a pitch like that, it is easy to see how Clark won over the Japanese. She was the "standout choice" because of her dual experience as a client and as a leader of a creative agency network, says Tim Andree, the long-serving executive chairman of Dentsu Aegis Network, who led the search.

Recruiting Clark was a coup for media-focused Dentsu Aegis Network, particularly given DDB is one of the most celebrated US creative agencies with a history stretching back to the heyday of Madison Avenue, and she was already one of the most visible and best-connected leaders in global advertising.

"She is very engaging and inspirational in that she sets a high bar and high ambition," Simon Francis, chief executive of Flock Associates, a specialist marketing consulting firm that advises global advertisers, says. "She’s a lightbulb in the room. People look at her and look to her for light. She sets a clear direction and expectation. She’s got that star quality that can pull people in a certain direction."

Francis saw how Clark worked when Flock advised McDonald’s on its US account review in 2016 and she led an Omnicom team to victory with an integrated offer to set up a bespoke agency in Chicago – a bold move that lasted until 2019, when the client decided on a new strategy.  

"She’s a transformer," Francis says. "She’s a force for change in an industry that needs it. She just needs to take people with her. In her quest for change and transformation, she may not take everyone at that pace."

Daunting inbox 

Clark is due to join in September and fills a gap left by Jerry Buhlmann, the hard-driving Briton who didn’t always see eye to eye with Andree and left after nine years as global chief executive in 2018. She will face a daunting inbox of challenges as she takes over all of Dentsu’s operations outside Japan and a client list that includes Disney, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.

Dentsu Aegis Network was under pressure even before coronavirus struck as annual revenues fell 1.9% last year and some of Buhlmann’s allies exited. The group made 177 acquisitions in six years and needs simplification. A restructuring in December only looked like a temporary fix as Andree made job cuts in seven underperforming markets: Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Singapore and the UK.

Dentsu Aegis Network has 42,000 employees but that number could fall further by September because of the brutal downturn in the world economy. In a surprise move, Dentsu postponed its quarterly results, which were due in mid-May, and blamed accounting "delays" because of coronavirus.

Clark, who describes herself as American but also holds a British passport thanks to her English father, will also have to navigate Japanese corporate culture in her new role. 

She points out she was a Dentsu client during her Coca-Cola days and, when she mentions her discussions with Toshi Yamamoto, president and chief executive of Dentsu, during the recruitment process, she makes sure to refer to him as Toshi-san – the Japanese term of address.

Clark’s record as a leader of a creative network is what makes her an intriguing choice to take over Dentsu Aegis Network, which is headquartered in London – a legacy of the £3.2bn acquisition of Britain’s Aegis Group in 2012.

The group is best known for its media, CRM and data agencies, which include Carat, iProspect, Merkle and Vizeum, and has relatively few creative assets, chiefly McGarrybowen.

She says Dentsu Aegis Network is already well-placed because of its "array" of capabilities. Making 177 acquisitions in six years is "incredibly impressive" and the group has already done a lot of the work on integrating them, she maintains.

Andree told Campaign last year that beefing up the group’s creative capability is a priority because "it does operate at the chief marketing officer level in the C-suite and there is a much higher likelihood of being able to cross-sell other services than coming from data or coming from media alone".

M&A would seem a likely route to drive creative expansion. Clark says she has "a number of thoughts and ideas in my mind around creative" but has not started in her new role and wants to get "under the hood" of the business first.

(Since Campaign spoke to Clark, Dentsu Aegis Network has gone on to launch a global creative shop, called Dentsumcgarrybowen, that combines its ad agencies outside Japan.)

Thinking like 'Connie Client'

For Dentsu Aegis Network to return to growth, the key is to integrate all of its capabilities more closely, not just to boost its creative credentials, according to Clark, who refers repeatedly to her time as a client at Coca-Cola and earlier at AT&T.

Brands tell her "again and again" – "and I’ve experienced it myself" as a marketer – that they want "integrated" solutions, she says. "The days of siloed thinking or [internally focused] corporate thinking [by agencies] is just not where the marketplace is. It’s certainly not how the consumer receives all of our work and our messaging."

She is promising to "roll up our sleeves" and "get into" the client’s business at Dentsu Aegis Network – "really digging into understanding the client’s particular challenges and needs and then presenting the capabilities and the ideas and the solutions for their business in a really integrated and compelling manner. That’s where you unlock growth," she says.

Putting clients first might seem obvious but rivals, notably WPP, have admitted in recent years that they need to be more client-centric and industry sources say Andree does not have a reputation for being hands-on when it comes to pitching and new business. "Arguably I am comfortable on the client side because I spent so many years there," Clark says, although she also credits her time running DDB for "sharpening" her understanding of client-agency relationships and the "magic" that makes them work.

"I dub myself ‘Connie Client’ a lot of times in meetings," she says, explaining how it helps to
think back to when she was a client. "I can look at something that we’re putting together or presenting or even the language we’re using or concepting and go, ‘No, that’s not going to hit right and here’s why’ or ‘That’s not the right solution because we haven’t thought about this.’ I call myself bilingual because I still feel quite fluent from a client perspective."

The need for change 

The fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic is the most immediate challenge facing Clark. "A day is equivalent to a week and a week is equivalent to a month in terms of the type of change we’re going through," she says.

The winners will be "the agile players" that are "deeply steeped in the marketplace", which "understand the data and where consumers’ mindsets are" and which can "move with speed and fluidity", according to Clark.

She remains bullish about agencies despite management consultants entering the sector, clients in-housing and greater media-buying transparency.

"Of course, it’s not what it was," Clark says of the global agency sector, "because the world and the business world we serve is not what it was. Those who are clinging to old ways of working are going to feel that especially acutely right now [because of the coronavirus economic slump]. That’s why the integration of capabilities, the agility of the business, the data-centricity, the technology capability – all of this coming together gives this company a very strong head start in this moment.

"The one thing I’d always said as a client was, there’s no environment where I didn’t foresee needing partners to help me create ideas and solutions that drove my business. There was never going to be a time when I had all of that – when I would have been arrogant enough to think I had all of that – inside the walls of my company. You will always need those partners."

Ultimately, she says, it’s about trust: "We want to be a trusted partner, that understands and knows business, that creates solutions based on incredible customer intelligence and then brilliant storytelling. And if we do all that right, there will always be a seat for us at the table."

Modern leadership

Clark will be a contender to be the most senior woman in the global agency sector in her new role. Asked to describe herself, she says: "First and foremost, I’m a mom of three teenagers."

She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she used to work for Coca-Cola, and plans to keep commuting to New York in her new role. "I like to say my office is at 30,000 feet because I fly every single week of the year," she says, even if coronavirus has changed that for the time being. "I’m not someone who sits at a desk and looks at reports. I like to feel it, to be with our people, to be with our clients, to understand the business from them."

Clark grew up in England until the age of 12, before moving to America, and began her career as a receptionist at an ad agency. "I wanted to prove myself," she says, adding she likes to tell that story because "what I learnt was never to be above anything".

She says she is a "very accessible and very transparent" leader. "Whoever asks for time gets time. I think that is the way of modern leadership today – to be one person. If you run into me at the shops on the weekends, I am exactly the same person you see in a meeting on Wednesday."

Clark describes her time at the helm of DDB as "an incredible privilege", pointing out: "I would not have this opportunity [at Dentsu Aegis Network] without the last four years." 

She had a decent run, rising from US chief executive to global president and CEO in 2018, and the network benefitted in part from the continued strong performance of Adam & Eve/DDB in London.

DDB was the second most-awarded creative network at Cannes Lions last year. However, the US agency has suffered some notable, recent losses, including McDonald’s and State Farm.

DDB started 2020 "in a difficult situation", John Wren, global chief executive of Omnicom, told investors at the end of April, adding: "We were a bit shocked and put off when Wendy Clark decided that she was going to move on in the middle of a [global health] crisis." Or as Francis puts it: "Some have questioned her ability to turn the vision into concrete reality on a client basis and as a network."

Reshaping Dentsu Aegis Network will be a test for Clark whose freedom to act will depend on Dentsu, which has said it wants to bring its Japanese and international operations closer as "one Dentsu".

She will find Dentsu’s culture is "very, very different" from US companies such as DDB and Coca-Cola, according to Francis, who used to work at Aegis Group. "It’s a fundamentally different business model. It’s about the pipes, the data and the money. It’s not about brand and creativity" – at least not as it’s currently organised. "It will test all of her transformational skills," he predicts.

Andree has tried to streamline Dentsu Aegis Network, organising the group into five lines of business a year ago and then reducing them to three – creative, CRM and media – in December. Data-rich Merkle is increasingly central to the group’s plans and Dentsu bought out minority shareholders in April.

"They have some great assets and the acquisition of Merkle is looking ever more like a good move," Paul Richards, a long-time media analyst in London and an executive director of Dowgate Capital, says.

Bringing order to its acquisitions is not a "unique" problem for Dentsu Aegis Network, Richards believes, pointing out other groups were also highly acquisitive during the past decade.

Looking ahead, he warns: "All the holding companies are braced for an unprecedented drop in revenues." The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics on home turf until 2021 is a special blow to Dentsu.

Clark is promising fervour and she will need it. "My favourite leadership quote is that, ‘leadership is the careful balance of hope and reality’," she says. "Yes, reality is glaring at us but we cannot lose the hope in that equation. We are going to march forward into a future that will look different, but there will be a future."

In her own words

What Clark brings to Dentsu Aegis Network

"Creative is the piece that I can add to these capabilities that exist already."

The role of agencies

"We always have to remember we are in the service business. Our business grows and we can count on our growth coming when our client’s business grows and I never get confused about that."

What she learnt at DDB

"It truly always is about the people, about their belief in what you’re doing, their belief in what’s possible, their belief in the magic that we can create."

How to unlock creativity

"The best creative in an agency network, I promise you, comes from the most trusted relationship [with a client]. There’s a direct correlation. When the trust is there, you go deeper together, you understand more about each other, you understand the business better, you get to those kernels that are the fuel behind incredible work. That unlocks. Then you can lock arms, you can be brave, you can jump together."

How to drive integration

"It requires a lot of hard work and, honestly, hard work is not something I’m afraid of."