John McCarthy, the agency’s president, speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about borrowing practices from the digital design industry, a sprint-orientated approach, and the differences between Silicon Valley’s ‘startups’, ‘scale-ups’ and ‘scale-outs’
When we interviewed Justin Thomas-Copeland, DDB's North American CEO, back in June, a small snippet of what he said stuck out. "You could almost argue that if you think about DDB in 10 years from now," he said, "it's probably going to look more like San Francisco than anywhere else."
At the helm of DDB San Francisco is John McCarthy, the agency's president. To paraphrase Justin, John has positioned the agency as an agile creative partner that is more into project based relationships and flexibility. "John is reinventing processes, looking at things like brand connection and engagement sprints with clients, new ways of working, co-creation, really embracing the market and the context that he's in," Justin added. "So he is really stepping to clients in new and exciting ways, and again it rolls perfectly back to Unexpected Works, because they think they're going to talk to a legacy outpost office in San Francisco that's only doing network business, and suddenly, they've got a team of 60 sharp shooters who are reinventing agency processes."
We figured we'd delve a little deeper into the how and why that's working in practice. LBB's Addison Capper caught up with John.
LBB> What are your thoughts on Justin Thomas-Copeland saying that DDB San Francisco looks like how he imagines a DDB office of the future?
John> It's true. It's one of the reasons I was attracted to the role in San Francisco. Something about the way business is done in Silicon Valley is unique and different from the established, entrenched, marketeer organisations. There's a lot that we can learn from that.
Those who embrace it will end up being on the bleeding edge of what this industry should ultimately be, compared to those trying to retrofit or optimise some of the old ways of doing things. There's a spirit in Silicon Valley and a client appetite for working differently that challenges us to innovate.
That's been my vision since I started. And it's been wonderful to see the team grow and evolve in those dimensions. We're beginning to see some of the early signs of success in that regard. It's very promising.
LBB> But most of your career has been spent in New York, right?
John> Most of my experience was in New York, working at Johannes Leonardo. We grew from seven to 60 during my time there and it opened my eyes to the world of startups.
Then I took a detour into more of the product-experience design ecosystem and joined a company called YML to lead strategy. That was eye-opening in the sense that there was a very progressive revolution happening in software development around Agile. It was an old-school model before really smart people re-looked at the whole ecosystem of how you get code to market, and as a result, I've been inspired to borrow as much as possible from that ecosystem. I'm marrying the best of design thinking with the best of brand building - which I think we've always done really well at DDB. Even if we don't live and breathe like a classic software agile organisation, we still know that methodology and understand that's how many clients are organising their workflows. That's the ethos that we're grafting. When we chat with clients, it's beneficial to bridge those two worlds together.
LBB> Justin also mentioned that DDB San Francisco was "the Agile creative partner" and that you are "reinventing processes, looking at things like brand connection and engagement sprints with clients, new ways of working, co-creation." Can you tell us more about that and the way that you're running the agency?
John> A lot of it comes down to those principles of design thinking and being more sprint-oriented. Looking at our work, it's not in the classic waterfall of receiving a brief, going back and thinking it through before bringing it back to the client - that typical vacuum that our clients hate. Instead, it's about radical collaboration that can bring clients into the process. We want to be comfortable with co-creation alongside clients, as most of our clients have internal creative teams, and it's mission-critical that we partner with them effectively.
LBB> I like what you said about in-house agencies and the need to collaborate with them. Every brand has one at the end of the day, so collaboration is surely the best approach.
John> Entirely. Most recognise the different shapes and forms of internal creative departments. A lot of the in-house teams we work with are probably more design-led. They tend to be more focused on some of the experience dimensions of the brand, or they may be obsessive about creating the physical product. They often recognise that they don't have the storytelling chops that we bring to the table. Sometimes it's about making sure that we're clear on who's bringing which superpowers to the table. It requires a lot more vulnerability on our side to be willing to expose vulnerable places in our process where things are wet clay, where they're not fully polished, and we haven't thought through every detail. But we give people early access. It's not just lip service. We want people to feel like they're part of the process and that they can really help shape things and make them so much stronger.
LBB> It feels very much like DDB SF is its own agency, despite it also being part of the DDB network. Is that true? How do you strike a balance between the two?
John> We get the best of both worlds. We're in our own geographic part of the world that's very unique and different, so we have permission to behave differently. We're expected to experiment. It's who we are. And because of the size of our team - we're about 60 people - we're still familial in size and it makes it a cohesive team. We have all of those advantages, but we're truly still DDBers.
To Justin’s credit, he's done an excellent job of pulling the whole region across North America to create a one DDB approach to how we do things.
Where we benefit from being part of not only a regional network but also a global network is in the depth it brings our clients. For example, one of our larger clients is Blackrock iShares and that's a truly global account lead out of San Francisco. There's no way we would be able to do that if I didn't have the backbone of agencies in all their key markets. The support infrastructure and the incredible capabilities across the global team makes for a truly powerful force.
LBB> How does being in San Francisco and close to Silicon Valley shape DDB SF as an ad agency?
John> There are several dimensions to that. Having spent time in New York, I feel like the west coast and Silicon Valley have unbridled optimism. It's a land of idealists, whereas in New York, it's a land of sceptics who are willing to critique everything. But as crazy as Silicon Valley is, there are people who honestly believe that they have all the tools and capabilities to dream up a change that will make the world better. That spirit is definitely alive. We, by virtue of our location, get to benefit from that.
We're smaller, but we have a lot of other folks who might not have the creative job title, but are doing very, very creative things. Every entrepreneur is a very creative visual who is bringing something new to the market. By broadening the aperture of how we define the creative community, it opens up the door for us to possibly convene a lot of folks around the question of the role of creativity in the world. That's incredibly important now, especially in Silicon Valley, where we're seeing and playing with the philosophical ramifications of artificial intelligence (AI). My perspective is that it means humans will continue to evolve into more and more creative functions to fulfil a complimentary economy. In this, maybe AI can take on some of the more rote functions, and we'll become increasingly creative. I'd love to be a part of helping to lead that conversation amongst our community. It's very top of mind for us, and we're starting to pull people together around those types of conversations. Additionally, people need to know their peers in and across a multitude of industries that are all in some way, shape or form functionally creative.
LBB> With that in mind, what are the clients like in SF? What kind of requests do you find yourself receiving often?
John> I get really excited by this because we learn a lot as a team when working with startups. Even though they're small, lean and don't have all the functions represented, they're often coming to us having recognised the need to craft their story. That's one set of clients.
Then we have clients we call 'scale-ups'. Those are the ones who have done the proof of concepts, sizable revenue and profitability. And yet they're looking to move from their proof of concept to mass and they need help with crossing the chasm and getting that larger reach toward growth. That's often who we see knocking on our door. But there are also the 'scale-outs'. Those who tend to be more focused on geographical expansion or product innovation need support with some of those dimensions.
Finally, there are the turnaround folks that need to restart and reimagine their positioning in the market. That's the full spectrum.
Startup and scale-up clients are fun because we have to find ways to be creative about how we partner with them. The level of impact we can have if we get in early and help lay the foundations in the right way can be really dramatic.
LBB> What is attracting talent like in the city? Obviously the talent drain and tech companies hiring from advertising agencies is prevalent all over but surely more so in San Francisco.
John> It's really competitive. It always has been. If there's anything that Covid has taught us, it's that being a lot more open and flexible about translating parallel experiences over to ours can really help. It’s a tough talent market and we can be a poaching ground for them for the Ubers, Lyfts and Googles of the world. But if we're just as creative and just as unexpected in how we look at where we source talent and the definitions we give to the roles that we have, we can come out on top.
LBB> Which piece of recent work do you feel is a really good example of the type of work DDB SF does well?
John> There's a piece of work that we recently did for Energy Upgrade California that comes to mind, which was about helping the state of California to use energy more effectively. We launched a programme called Goldie. It's an SMS text-based platform that's currently still in beta, but it's an unexpected place for us to show up. Firstly, we typically aren't the ones doing concept work for SMS-based programmes. Secondly, the problem itself presented an opportunity for us to look at attacking differently. That was one of the first times we did a Google Design Sprint. The output is slightly different from what people might expect from DDB but also because it's a digital product, it has a lifespan that's not just marketing. Its job is to continue to evolve and get better over time and inspire the behaviour change that the programme is looking to accomplish. We showed up in an unexpected way, but we also did it in a very unexpected way. Getting to the solution from the inside was much more sprint and design-thinking oriented.
LBB> You've mentioned the word 'unexpected' a few times so, with DDB's new 'Unexpected Works' campaign and mindset in mind, how do you see the next year or so for DDB SF?
John> We're doubling down on how we can bring Unexpected Works to life and continue to prove that belief across the market. It's certainly something that our clients instinctively know, but it gives them a very simple lens through which they can evaluate and appreciate the thinking that we bring to the table. I love it. It feels like it's a call to experiment. We need to be the ones who are constantly looking at that next new, unexpected horizon that others don't see yet. And that part is where I get really inspired and excited.