Top Shop

DDB nurtures a creative culture

By Natalia Williams

DDB Group Photo

Possibly the best-known man in Canadian advertising now has another notch in his belt: another Gold in strategy’s 2007 Agency of the Year competition.

Many people understandably considered Ogilvy & Mather the one to beat, given the unprecedented success of its Dove work. But DDB Canada’s first-place showing, helmed by chairman and CEO Frank Palmer, seems to prove that slow, steady and consistent work ultimately wins the race.

This year, judges raved about most of the agency’s work, which included campaigns for Subaru, B.C. Hydro, Capital One, A Community that Cares and Canadian Blood Services. AOY judge Harvey Carroll, VP marketing, North America of Labatt Breweries, called the campaign for Subaru a “breakthrough.”

“It delivers well on the brief, and at the same time is consistent with, and even helps to develop, the unique character and personality of the car,” he said.

Judge Sloan Dinning, director, brand and marketing communications at Vancity, called DDB’s Capital One campaign “a disruptive approach in a conservative industry,” adding that DDB “executed on it brilliantly.”

The agency has consistently been in medal or finalist standing in this competition over the years, earning Gold three years running from 1999 to 2001 as Palmer Jarvis DDB and Silver last year. Its annual medal haul at international awards ceremonies has also been impressive. DDB Worldwide has all but mandated its agencies around the world to be in the top three in their markets.

Then again, maybe it’s just Frank.

Talking to Palmer about his philosophies on keeping creatives creative, earning clients’ trust and building a dynamic agency culture reveals why the agency, which he started as Trend Advertising in Vancouver 38 years ago, is one of the tops in the country.

Palmer says what he thinks, which comes in handy for both quotes and cues on his leadership. He retains a fierce passion for the business but recognizes that “it’s only advertising; we’re not brain surgeons here.” And his infamous jokester persona plays a role in his unique leadership style. “I am a character,” he says, laughing, then explains, “It’s about constantly trying to put a spirit inside the company and keep it alive and different.”

And he may also be prophetic. “Ten years ago, when we were nobodies, we decided that we wanted to be the best agency in Canada when it came to creative and awards,” he says. “That was our goal. Everyone knew it and strove for it.”

Mission accomplished.


Creative culture

For a big, modern shop, DDB is rather basic and old-school in its approach to nurturing good creative. Alan Russell, CD of DDB in Vancouver (who has worked with the agency for about 20 years now), says rule one is simple: no mediocre work.

A peer review system called Co-Create (used through the DDB network) means that decisions on whether or not creative ideas are working are not the exclusive terrain of the CDs. “Creative teams put work up on cork boards and then invite individuals to look at it one at a time,” Russell says. “You get the input of the whole department. It’s a very open and collaborative way of working, as opposed to some traditional agencies, which have creative directors who say either yes or no.”

Account services people also voice their opinions at an early stage of the process, as do occasional passersby. “We encourage people to go out on the street with their ads, to stop people on Robson Street and ask, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ If you get people laughing and reacting to it, it’s a litmus test for whether the ideas are working or not,” says Russell.

Coupled with this approach is a focus on building a winning agency culture: training courses at DDB U, conferences in Beijing, creative retreats to Whistler, B.C., and the occasional Friday afternoon movie are all part of the agency’s commitment to keeping staff creative and content.

DDB U, for example, is a year-round program, started eight years ago, that puts staff through courses led by professors and lecturers to learn how to better work with clients, manage accounts and resolve conflict. “[We’re] adding to their development,” says Palmer. “People get tired and stale.”

Palmer also hints at plans to beef up the agency’s talent roster. “We’re embarking on a whole new talent attraction program,” he says. “DDB wants to be the best employer in Canada when it comes to advertising agencies, [because] it all comes down to how you treat people.”

At the heart of this big agency are its upstart roots. “It’s funny, around town people still talk about us as Palmer Jarvis or PJ, even after all these years,” says Russell, who as CD in the agency’s original Vancouver location has witnessed its various incarnations over the years. “We’ve definitely tried, in many ways, to stay small. The spirit of Palmer Jarvis was always entrepreneurial and had a lot of Frank behind it. It was kind of like we were the underdogs. I’d still like to think about us that way, even though we’ve got the label of a big agency.”