A talk with Wendy Clark, CEO of DDB Worldwide, on Resilience in an industry that loves to judge
Earlier this year at an event at WITH, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing a personal hero of mine in the agency business, Wendy Clark, CEO of DDB Worldwide. The experience was a high point in my career and our conversation was rich and valuable.
But first, some background on the kind of admired leader Wendy Clark is.
She has navigated (and continues to navigate) her career in her own way, on her own terms. Conventionality has zero place in her life.
She supports women by her actions, not just her words. She undyingly lives by the mantra “lift as you climb.”
No matter how high she climbs, she stays close to the people and the creative product.
She is humble.
She is a really good human who genuinely cares about people.
So, when we started thinking about what to discuss in our talk, the topic of Resilience jumped into my mind, started stomping around and stayed there. It was perfect for a woman who began as a receptionist and now sits atop one of the most impactful global agency networks in the world - DDB Worldwide. Her path wasn’t easy, marked with its own dose of setbacks. And today, she continues to face real challenges in very visible role. But one thing remains the same - her resolve to just keep going. It's in those setbacks where the real learning and real work is done. And THAT, is what resilience is all about.
So let's get to it.
What is resilience? And why is it so important in the creative and agency business?
The Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as:
The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
Toughness - there it is. But, in my opinion, toughness is merely a result. A byproduct. True resilience requires much more work and intention to achieve. To have resilience, you need to be humble, possess empathy, and hold a healthy respect for failure.
Agencies only win about 30% of the business they pitch. If the agency business was measured like sports, we’d be terrible. When I asked Wendy on her perspective, especially when she made the transition from client side to agency side, here’s what she said:
Then, she went beyond the concept of just handling the failure rate. But emphasized the importance of doing so with immediacy in our industry:
“This business can be hard or harder.”
Resilience in leadership
Next, we covered the topic of the importance of resilience in leadership. One of the hardest things about being a leader in the agency world is keeping work fresh and teams motivated in an environment that is highly critical and judgmental - especially when your product is subjective (as creative is).
For Wendy, she articulated,
“Leadership is the careful balance of hope and reality.”
To me, it starts with demonstrative resilience. This doesn’t mean you need to slap on a happy face and tell everyone to “Get back out there, you’ll get the next one!” It means to demonstrate how to handle failure in a constructive manner - how to learn from failure so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes. I believe that great leaders act with accountability, not blame.
When we discussed handling failure as a leader, Wendy had some insightful remarks.
“Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.”
The greatest brands in the world are the resilient ones. The ones that haven’t had a safe and steady climb, but the ones who dare to be bold, take a stance, and make us believe. But with that boldness, undoubtedly will come failure - more than once. So, what do great brands do with a big, fat, public failure?
Basically, there’s a simple formula for handling failure:
Fess up to it
Fix it (and don’t sleep until you do)
And, whatever you do, don’t defend it.
Practicing resilience is hard - because the work we do is hard. We are in an industry in which everyone loves to judge us. We’re critiqued and scrutinized constantly. Failure is inevitable - it's just part of the process. And it isn’t the enemy. The enemy is the unwillingness to change, adapt, fix the problems and move on. When we stop seeing failure as an opportunity for growth, we begin to lose our creativity - the very element that makes our work great and allows for us to connect with people; our ultimate job.
In my opinion, you can find no better group of people demonstrating resilience than those in the creative industry. So, watch each other, encourage each other, challenge each other. The more we persevere together, the easier each fall will become and the more resilient we will be.
Blair Brady, CEO | Co-Founder