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Deep Dive 28 Jul 2020 - 5 min read

'The Diplomat': DDB ANZ’s new global CEO Martin O’Halloran signals big shift beyond ads to 10,000 worldwide staff

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

DDB ANZ Group boss Marty O'Halloran turns global CEO: "I’m not going there to do things the way it’s always been done around the world."

From Auckland to New York (eventually), the low-profile, former champion Australian rower has deliberately fired his first signal to the global DDB advertising network - a precision marketing practitioner, Justin Thomas-Copeland, is now running the flagship US creative agency. From his base in COVID-free Auckland, New Zealand, Marty O'Halloran signals much more is to come in the global agency reinvention he's promised parent company Omnicom and its boss John Wren


DDB shake-up coming

Now 34 years into his stint at DDB, Marty O’Halloran is about to really shake some shit up.

Last week, DDB Group ANZ’s long-term stellar performance under his watch as chairman and CEO landed him a global mandate to reinvent an advertising network in a sector he admits has been too slow to adapt. 

“I’m not going there to do things the way it’s always been done around the world,” he tells Mi3 from his office in COVID-free Auckland, New Zealand. “And definitely I’ll take a lot of the learnings from Australia and New Zealand, where we’ve enjoyed a terrific run. That’s one of the reasons I’m going into this global role because they’ve seen we’ve moved faster than some of the other parts of the network.”

O’Halloran says John Wren, the boss of DDB’s giant, NY-listed parent company Omnicom, wants him to replicate the performance of the Australian and New Zealand group internationally. If he does, Wren told his new report, they’re “going to have a great time together”.

O’Halloran has built and diversified the local group beyond advertising to a creatively-minded digital, data, design, strategy, consulting and martech melting pot. It’s had McDonald’s for nearly 50 years and has piled on big client brands from Westpac to Johnson & Johnson’s experimental full-service hub which houses sister shops like OMD. Integrated services offers plaster the claims of many agency networks but DDB, under O’Halloran’s watch, has done it better than most. 

Creating and controlling a big, diversified operation in a small global market is quite different, however, to running and reinventing the advertising agency that reinvented the advertising agency of the Mad Men era. DDB invented strategy planning and the one-time untouchable fusion of the art director and copywriter in ad agency creative teams.  

O’Halloran wants diversification at DDB, and for it to catch-up on the tech and data boom which he admits the giant global communications holding companies have largely bene too slow. A whole slew of new services firms have emerged off the back of tech-led customer experience, data and marketing technology which ad agencies and their parent companies are rapidly now trying to embrace. 

O’Halloran doesn’t want to build a DDB with everything in-house but rather wants to tap the diversity of the Omnicom mothership with its armada of investments.  

Danger, egos and conflicting holding company turf wars

It’s an ambition fraught with danger, Thor-sized egos and conflicting holding company turf wars and KPIs.   

“I keep a low profile but I’m definitely the puppet master of putting together amazing teams that will deliver for clients and I think that’s what the holding companies need to do,” he says. O’Halloran is a “big bloke” who’s nickname at university was “The Diplomat” where he used his brawn to break up fights and his temperament to broker calm.

“Sometimes it might be not great for us [financially], but in the long run, you know, we'll all benefit,” he says of competing P&L’s and agendas in a disparate group like Omnicom. “And most importantly, the client does.”

So what are O’Halloran’s priorities and what are the signals his global network should take heed of? Straight up, it’s his first appointment in the new chair last week of North America’s new CEO, Justin Thomas-Copeland. 

I've hired someone out of the Omnicom Precision Marketing Group, so he comes from a data and technology background. That's my first signal in terms of change. I'm putting someone in with a very different background into DDB. So how can we actually bring those skills together? It's actually by doing something bold like that. And already I know a lot of the people in North America are quite excited about a move like that because they know their business has to evolve and change.

For a renowned creative firm, O’Halloran says 45% of DDB Group’s ANZ pool is made up of data and technology talent and that is now a global target. 

“I'm working closely with some of the other [Omnicom] data and technology businesses and consulting businesses because I'm an open collaborator,” he says. “If we look at the bigger picture and the vision that John Wren's got for Omnicom, we have to actually bring the best to the table, and I will do that. One of things I've promised him is I will bring together the best assets of Omnicom in ways that we've not seen before in our major markets. I know that's really excited him because we've got the skills, we've got the consulting skills, we've got the technology, the data skills.”


Global consulting firm alliance coming

Indeed, O’Halloran collaborative bent has him working on alliances globally for DDB with other professional services firms and management consultants.

“There’s opportunities for management consultants and agencies to partner better than we do right now. I’ve had conversations with some consulting firms. I’m working on some stuff there which will surprise people because, again, they are in awe of our creative abilities. And the reality is creative people don’t want to work for a consulting company and work in that environment.”

So how long does the DDB world wait for this surprise? “It's a global conversation,” he says. “You’ll just have to watch this space. But again, you know it comes back to what I said before that great agencies are great collaborators, whether it be management consultants, whether it be media agencies, different parts of the client organization. You know, we have to be open. We have to listen. We have to collaborate. We have to create new and different teams. A lot of our clients have got big technology teams so how do we how do we actually connect with them? How do we actually help them uncover the opportunity and inject our creative firepower at the right times in the process.” 

O’Halloran is fast to reject any suggestion that DDB is dumping its famed creative heritage , credentials and capabilities. Rather, he says, it’s opening the definition of creativity up. 


No bullshit, no politics

In the end, though, for all the necessary change O’Halloran wants to unleash on his new global network, he keeps talking up people and culture first. Every leader usually does but it’s also why O’Halloran has got his eyes on the DDB moon shot. In Australia and New Zealand at least, rival agencies – which O’Halloran says will undergo significant consolidation -  say DDB has been the most consistent, standout performer in the past decade. There’s a lot of people that stick with O’Halloran.       

“Look, I'm known as someone who drives people and culture first and our global staff satisfaction surveys, Australia and New Zealand are in the top five of 200 offices. So it's a culture that I deeply care about, the people that work for me. There's no bullshit with me. There's no politics. I create an environment where my senior people are loyal.”

As for O’Halloran’s deeper thoughts on creativity, post-COVID WFH satellite office hubs, holding company blunders and financial engineers and predictions of global agency job cuts, you’ll have to hit play on the Mi3 podcast below. 

O’Halloran likely heads for New York in October. Until then, the global DDB empire will be run from COVID-free New Zealand, currently, one of the safest places in the world. Funny that, for a diplomat.  


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