DDB’s Priya Patel reflects on business, creative innovation and independents

In 2020, DDB Sydney has not just navigated the pandemic, it has brought on a slew of new business, built out a media team for Johnson & Johnson, a social team for McDonald's and pushed the boundaries in creativity. Managing director Priya Patel chats to Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson on what keeps bringing clients back to the agency, and the strength of legacy agencies when all eyes are on independents.

Priya Patel describes her two-and-a-half years at DDB Sydney as “exciting, unpredictable and fun”.

It is the only question after which she takes a pause before answering. In the last three years DDB has been a consistently strong performer in the market, and despite 2020 and all its challenges, the agency has still delivered a steady year of growth.

“I’m actually feeling great,” Patel says, “I’ve got to say it’s been really exhausting but actually this year has given me a lot of hope and excitement for what we are as a business and what we can be. So although I am tired, I’m also feeling very positive and kind of good about the year and next year in particular.”

How do you navigate an agency in a year such as this? Do you batten down the hatches? Or do you get scrappy and attack the new business that’s out there? For an agency with the scale and client list of DDB Sydney, it was a little bit of both.

“It was all just about doubling down on what we are great at,” she says.

“We are a really commercial and trusted partner for most of our clients, and I think this year has been about balancing both reaction and growth. And winning new business absolutely has been great, but we’ve also really doubled down on supporting our existing clients and that was a large part of the initial period of COVID.”

DDB Sydney’s managing director Priya Patel

This year, DDB Sydney has brought in new clients: LinkedIn, the Red Cross, and an expanded remit with Johnson & Johnson including a bespoke team and media. It took a hit losing the creative account for Foxtel earlier in the year, but soon replaced it with Netflix. Virgin Australia went quiet as it navigated travel restrictions, and it remains to be seen how the airline will re-emerge in 2021. Coles hired DDB. And, the agency has built out its social team after bringing on McDonald’s’ digital and social work.

“I do think we’ve proven that it’s a fallacy that big agencies can’t be fast or nimble or proactive. So in fact, I think what COVID proved is that we have the structures, the processes, the people, the ambition, and actually the experience to make things happen,” Patel says.

“I think this year we actually delivered extraordinary things for our clients. We built an online dealership for Volkswagen in just two weeks, and then we pivoted the entire Macca’s business to kind of an essential service where they’re selling milk and bread. And then we’ve created a whole agency integrating media for [Johnson & Johnson] and we’ve built social units.

“So we’ve actually done loads whilst in lockdown, and I think that’s been our approach, which it’s not ‘pause, batten down the hatches’, it’s really practical, useful application that keeps a focus on growth for our clients.”

New business has come to the agency through projects and familiar faces. Coles’ chief marketing officer, Lisa Ronson, was previously DDB’s client through Westpac. Johnson & Johnson’s Tami Cunningham reappointed the agency after previously being its client at Wrigley.

Patel describes it as the “tried and tested” quality of DDB’s work and operation. In the coming year, DDB Sydney will celebrate the 50 year anniversary of its relationship with McDonald’s, 25 years of Johnson & Johnson  and 10 years of Westpac .

“I think it’s testament to the cultural continuity that we’re able to offer. And as I said, that proven tested formula, but people think that big agencies are slow and cumbersome, but we in fact go out of our way to be proactive partners and commercial partners,” she affirms.

“So we understand the business and we’re looking to grow their business. That’s always our agenda, how are we going to commercially grow you through creative?”

While DDB has continued to grow, it has been a big year for independents too. Special Group opened two offices and expanded its work with Uber Eats internationally. Aden Hepburn’s Akcelo launched, steadily growing to a 40-person team and working with the likes of TikTok and Lion. Ben Lilley has planted the independent stamp on McCann and is building out its capabilities with acquisitions.

Meanwhile, Simon Ryan, Konrad Spilva, Craig Brooks, Joel Pearson, and now Chris Howatson and Ant White are all branching out with their own businesses. The trend is driving the narrative that there is an appetite for new, nimble client partners, with integrated service offerings, boasting senior talent, but with much lower overheads.

But Patel stands by the holding-group model.

“I think actually the thing that big agencies, at their best, deliver is that scale and speed. We have embedded processes, embedded culture, and we’re not just relying on founders to do a lot of heavy lifting,” she asserts.

“And also you’ve just got a proven track record. We know how to help clients grow their business, and when you’re unsure or where it’s unclear, the having a really strong commercial partner with a proven kind of history is actually a real priority and a real reassurance for clients.

“I think entrepreneurs add competition and freshness and challenge to the market and they keep big agencies on their toes and they do encourage us continually lift our game and stay match fit. And I think it’s good that clients have choice, I’m a big advocate of that.”

DDB Group is home not just to DDB Sydney, but Mango Communications, Tribal, TRACK, Remedy and Interbrand, each offering specialised services from PR, to brand, to digital experience solutions. Maintaining each agency brand, despite now going up against agencies that can offer it all under one name, is actually an advantage, Patel believes.

“Whatever a client needs or wants, we are able to serve it,” she says.

“We are lucky we work with these big clients who want a full end-to-end offering. So they would like above-the-line support, brand identity, PR, digital, CX, UX, CRM, the whole kit and caboodle.

“In each instance, what we basically do is build the right team for them from all of those specialist agencies for that client… But there are some clients who don’t want the whole thing right? There are some clients who just want PR, or just need some support with CRM, and so what having the different front doors enables them to do is just bite off the chunk that they want rather than having to buy the full operating model.”

Patel says “the beauty of the model” is that maintaining these brands attracts specialists, not ‘generalists’ who can do a bit of everything. DDB “[builds] a team that pulls the right CRM guidance, if, and when you need them, or the right PR specialist when you need them.”

In 2020, Patel says the industry has “learned a lot of lessons about being creative and finding creative solutions” based on an “impetus to be smarter with creative production [and] how we are responsive.”

Looking ahead, she says great creative work will come from the mass digital adoption that has taken place this year.

“So there’s obviously been exponential digital adoption. I think the new normal will be, how do you create more interesting content and opportunities in that space?” Patel predicts.

“I think we’re going to see some amazing creative work… When there’s all this pent up energy that everyone’s had this year to just produce and create, next year with the shackles off, I’m really hoping that will result in some amazing work.

“And I think hopefully it will breed more of an innovation culture. So now that we’ve all survived and innovated in this mental year, how are we going to keep that memory muscle of innovation going into everything that we do. So hopefully we’ll see lots of fresh thinking and different approaches.”


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