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Volume 20 No. 42
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The Sit-Down: Wendy Clark, CEO DDB North America

The ad agency leader discusses the benefits of a personal approach, how not knowing everything isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the skill that changing schools five times in five years will give you.

There’s nothing remotely athletic about me. I’ve given birth to three athletes, and I married an athlete, so I feel very proud of that. … I didn’t mess things up too much with my non-sporty genes.

I’m the only child of a single mother, and therefore I’m really actually her project. At 46 years old I’m now very clear what this whole thing’s about.

She loves tennis, just loves tennis. I’ve got one more major event to take her to. She has not been to the Australian Open.

Back in the ’70s [the U.S. Open] used to do standing room only for the finals, and she slept on the sidewalk [for a ticket]. I can remember waving goodbye [and] this really conflicted feeling of leaving your mother on the sidewalk with a sleeping bag. “OK, bye …”

When I moved from England to America, from fifth grade to ninth grade — so fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, five years — I went to five different schools, which sounds kind of shocking now, right? Societally, we worry about that.

I do think, on the positive side, there’s skills and learning in every experience you have. I think that would be the macro thing I’d say. I kind of know how to enter a room and not know anyone, because I had to do that for five years in a row at a very young age.

We have moved for my career a fair amount. At the moment when you’re making that decision, it feels like such a big decision.

Every time that I’ve made those decisions across my career, upon reflection, in hindsight, I’m like, “Well, was there any other way I could have made that decision?” It feels like such a non-event after you do it.

I’d love to have told myself, like, lean into them even harder, because it’s going to work out, it’s going to be just fine and you’re going to be glad you did it.

The marketplace is constantly changing, and so if you don’t like change, you’re not going to be very good at your job.

Being a marketer has been a constant reappraisal of my skills and capabilities to constantly make sure I understand what’s coming next.

The big thing we did in the ’90s were freestanding inserts in newspapers. If you don’t like change, you’re not going to embrace it, you’re not going to be very successful at your job, and you’ll be sidelined.

I am not at all intimidated by what I don’t know. … I actually like when I walk in a room and I don’t know something. I’m like, “Well, this will be good. I’m going to learn something.”

If you feel somehow insecure and intimidated by the things you don’t know, you’re probably not going to lean into change the way you should.

No one is born knowing everything. No one even goes through a 25-plus-year career and knows everything. You just don’t.

Coke for me as a marketer was … I don’t have my MBA, so I never did my master’s degree … that was my master’s, working with the world’s best marketers, unquestionably.

There’s a wheat-and-chaff thing that happens at Coke, and if you can’t keep up at Coke, you need to consider doing something else.

Seven and a half years at Coke, working on arguably the most recognized brand in the world. By the data we had at the time, it was second to the crucifix in terms of recognition. And we were not going to challenge Jesus for the top spot.

We’ve just spent the summer on a very, very tough new business pitch that actually did not go our way, so it’s … been a little bit of a bruising week.

Across the summer [people] postponed their vacations, they rescheduled their vacations, they worked nights, they worked weekends, they missed sunny days, they literally, arguably put their lives on hold to contribute to our business and our opportunity.

I think as the leader of that, what I talk about is the pressure and privilege of leadership. There’s a pressure, yes, I’m responsible for the P&L. That’s a very real pressure.

It is also a deep privilege that these people are willing to do those things for us. It feels like such a privilege, and I feel like the way that I acknowledge that has to be as personal as I can make it.

It’s not always perfect. I have 2,000 people in my organization now. I don’t know all 2,000. I really couldn’t. But I try to.

Just yesterday I was in Chicago, and we have two agencies in opposite buildings and I go between the two a lot. I was crossing over, and a young woman walked past me and said, “Hi, Wendy,” on the street, and she obviously belonged at one of the agencies.

So I just stopped and said, “Tell me your name, I want to remember you. And tell me the account you work on and tell me what you do.” And I think your team will largely accept that from you. I don’t think they expect you to know everything.

I graduated in 1991 [and] there was sort of a mini-recession, I couldn’t find a job, but I wanted to be in advertising desperately. The job I found was as a receptionist in an agency.

And I love [that] today, 25 years later as the CEO of 17 different agencies in North America, being able to say to them, look at anyone in our organization and say, “I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I was the receptionist.”

And I’ll never, never forget being a receptionist, by the way. Not being included in meetings.

The reception desk was right by the conference room door, and I can remember the clients would come, they’d go in the conference room door and they’d close the door. … And I really wanted to listen, you know?

Never get frustrated when people underestimate you. People are going to underestimate you across your career.

If they’d left the door open … I probably would have given them one or two ideas or something if they’d asked, but they chose to close the door. That’s happened all my life.