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The Marketer

Chuck Brymer shares how DDB Worldwide intends to keep itself ahead of the curve.
Saturday, December 24, 2016 - 05:50

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Chuck Brymer

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"Speed is the new big. And the ability of companies to react quickly - to adapt to new realities; to deliver against new technologies, borderless boundaries, different elements - is the difference between success and failure."

CHUCK Brymer is a man who has his priorities sorted - whether in his professional life as president and CEO of DDB Worldwide, or in his personal life as a husband and father of four. On the professional front, the advertising agency made waves earlier this year when it announced - through an op-ed by its chief creative officer, Amir Kassaei - its plan to "divest (itself) from the madness" of meaningless awards shows with their "made-up empty titles like Agency of the Year, Network of the Year, or whatever". The idea was to resist the lure of self-promotion, and to focus on servicing clients better instead.

Mr Brymer's laser-like focus on the things that matter extends to his family as well. Despite the nature of his global role - he hasn't been in the same timezone for over 10 days in the last five years - he makes it a point to fly home to his family in San Diego, California every weekend. That's no mean feat, considering he's either in DDB's New York headquarters during the week (or somewhere else around the world entirely).

"I've been in Europe, flown back (to California) for the weekend, and then come right back... If you want to be a part of your family - if that's important to you - then you have to commit to that. So I do," says the 57-year-old who was born in Louisville, Kentucky.

The road to advertising

Arguably, Mr Brymer's skill at balancing work with other demands was honed at a fairly young age. He worked all through college, choosing labour-intensive jobs during the summer, and journalism or advertising internships during the school year.

As he earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Kentucky, he was at turns a tow truck driver, a rookie news writer, a swimming pool builder, a junior TV reporter, a factory worker (he helped to assemble electric typewriters), and an advertising intern.

He laughs when asked to share what prompted his switch from journalism to advertising. "Well," he says sheepishly, glancing at my tape recorder and deciding how best to relay this tactfully to a journalist: "It seemed like the guys that were working in the advertising department drove nicer cars. And I was like, what are those guys doing down there?!"

(Of course, he admits that there was also the fact that as a TV news intern, he was only getting assigned to the most fluffy of stories - "I was such a new young reporter, that I was getting Fathers' Day at the zoo" - which didn't feel sufficiently challenging.)

And so began his foray into advertising - a trade he'd had been exposed to at a young age, as his father had worked at McCann Erikson. After graduating from university, Mr Brymer moved 1,000 miles south to Houston, Texas to open BBDO's branch office at age 23. There, he cut his teeth on fresh accounts for clients like Chrysler.

After three years, though, he switched tracks and left advertising for branding. He joined Interbrand Group - a London-based multinational consulting firm - as its first (and sole) US employee in 1985. At the time, Interbrand had been trying, albeit without much success, to expand into the US market. By hiring the young Mr Brymer, they had hoped their US fortunes would turn around.

Their bet paid off; in just one year, Interbrand had made a name for itself as the go-to place for branding services, and boasted clients like Pizza Hut and Hewlett-Packard. In 1986 - and at just 27-years-old - Mr Brymer was named one of Fortune magazine's People to Watch.

In 1993 the Omnicom Group acquired Interbrand; the next year it appointed Mr Brymer as chairman-CEO of the branding consultancy. In 2006, after 21 years at Interbrand, Mr Brymer was tapped by Omnicom's president-CEO John Wren for the top job at DDB, where he's been for the last decade.

He says of his oscillations between advertising and branding: "I don't think there's that much difference. We're basically creating ideas or platforms for products, to communicate with specific audiences. In the case of branding, it might be more the experience of what the package design might look like, or what the corporate graphics might look like, or what the interior of a store might look like. Advertising is the same way - it's coming up with ideas that are translated through a campaign or through some type of media, which allows people to experience the brand."

In fact, despite leading one of the most-awarded agencies in the history of advertising, Mr Brymer sees himself as a marketer, not an advertiser.

"I'd say most people in advertising agencies are marketers. We look at communications from an integrated perspective. It's not about just coming up with a commercial; 20 years ago, that might have been the domain of an advertising agency. Today, successful agencies are morphing themselves to become much more integrated communicators - and they have to because the world's changing quickly," he notes.

He explains that advertisements alone no longer cut it; agencies must respond through different ideas specific to apps, social media, and online platforms, in addition to the more traditional tools of audio and video.

And while other agencies may be fond of the phrase "digital media", Mr Brymer says he doesn't "see digital as a form of media, per se", but as "the platform by which everything works". He declares, for example, that "digital is an oxygen, an ecosystem that we all live in". Seen through his eyes, the word "digital" has an elemental quality to it - a necessary precondition to advertising life, if you will.

Still, he notes how the digital wave has "turbocharged" the need for speed - whether in advertising or in other industries.

He says: "I think one of the biggest changes today is that in the past, we lived under the axiom that the big eat the small. I think that was true - size and scale were the differentiators. But I think in the new knowledge-based economy, the fast eat the slow. Size is no longer the differentiator.

"Speed is the new big. And the ability of companies to react quickly - to adapt to new realities; to deliver against new technologies, borderless boundaries, (and other) different elements - is the difference between success and failure.

"If you look at many business leaders who have 'failed', the common theme (isn't a lack of vision), but the inability to action that. I think that is to me the real difference in leadership. We all have vision - it's who can take that vision and turn it into reality today, quicker than others."

As part of its efforts to stay ahead of the curve, DDB recently anchored in Singapore its first technology and innovation centre. Equator, as it is known, is supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board, and aims to develop and pioneer new marketing solutions. Apart from incubating new tech-based products and services for DDB clients, the centre will also groom young creative technologists in Singapore via a satellite office in Temasek Polytechnic (TP). This will allow students to work alongside and be mentored by some of DDB's creative executives.

Inspiring talent

To be sure, DDB's collaboration with TP is a shrewd one - especially given the ever-ferocious war for talent in Singapore. Indeed, as TP's principal and CEO, Peter Lam, noted at Equator's launch: "Having access to our 15,000 campus community (will) benefit all parties involved, as it can be tapped on to test-bed new ideas and concepts."

Since one of Mr Brymer's top goals is to recruit, recognise, and retain talent better, the move to launch Equator - and to moor it in in Singapore - was a no-brainer.

Says Mr Brymer: "(The people aspect) is probably the most important thing that I do. I was reading a quote once about leadership, and it said that leadership is really the ability to inspire others to do more, to dream more, and to be more.

"We are a people business - we're a service-oriented company, and we have 12,000 people around the world. So the more that we can inspire those people to do better, the more successful we'll be. Probably the most important thing I can do is ( ensure) that our talent is aligned, that it's inspired, that it's working toward common visions and goals, that we're fully dedicated and committed to their success."

This focus on talent development is part of the reason DDB has decided to stop participating in hundreds of awards shows each year - simply because the time and money spent on submissions could be channelled toward talent acquisition instead.

"These creative award shows - they're a business. They take money for submissions. And if you start adding it up, I'd rather take that money and hire people, hire young talent... That's what we should be doing - bringing in people that could be working in this industry but aren't. Instead we're spending money trying to win awards; we have our priorities backwards," says Mr Brymer. By choosing to participate in fewer awards each year - "only the ones we think are important for our clients and for our people" - he says DDB has adjusted its priorities.

"We were spending (our resources) to win an award in some obscure award show. And for what?," he cries. "So we're not going to participate in hundreds of awards shows anymore. We've got too much work to do."

While DDB's proclamation caused quite a stir in the advertising community, Mr Brymer says his staff responded positively. This was in part because the demands of award submissions had begun to wear on employees, and overtake their core creative work.

"We're not in the business of award shows. We're in the business of creativity, for the purpose of helping our clients," he declares.

Keeping himself honest

Although his career continues to indelibly shape his life - Mr Brymer likens his weekly commute between New York and San Diego to "a five-hour taxi ride in the sky" - he insists his job is just that: a job. What keeps him grounded, he says, is his family.

"You can learn so much (from children). You can bring yourself back to a place where you can be inspired, where you can actually make yourself and your life better. My kids have always kept me honest that way: your job is a job. It's a part of your life, but it doesn't have to define your life.

"Some people are defined by what they do, and they will work that way for the rest of their lives. For me, you know, life is more than just what you do in a job. Kids, I think, can bring that out of you and help you reacquaint yourself with other parts of your life that sometimes you forget. As you get busy, and your schedule gets too crowded - like, 'I'm in a meeting and I can't take a call right now!' - those are things that a child breaks down pretty quickly."

With his zeal for both his personal and professional lives, it's unsurprising that his motto in life is simple and laced with joie de vivre: "Life is short, man. Have fun along the way."


CHUCK BRYMER

President and CEO

DDB Worldwide

1959 Born in Louisville, Kentucky, US

1981 Graduated from University of Kentucky with BA in communications

1982-1985 Worked at BBDO

1985 Joined Interbrand Group

1994 Named chairman-CEO, Interbrand

2006 Appointed president and CEO, DDB Worldwide

Author, "The Nature of Marketing: Marketing to the Swarm as Well as the Herd" (2008)

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