Q&A: Wendy Clark on inspiring your pitch team

"I'm there every hour that anyone is there," says the North America CEO of DDB Worldwide.

Wendy Clark (left), NA CEO for DDB, celebrates with her team after winning the McDonald's account.

Campaign US' Annual Morale Survey has once again revealed that leadership is the number one most-cited cause of low employee morale. All this week, as part of our first-ever Leadership Report, we're exploring the issue through the eyes of those who live it every day.

It lasted only 60 days, yet the Publicis vs. Omnicom shootout for McDonald's $1.4 billion U.S. creative account was by far the most-watched, most-talked-about pitch of the year. Adding to the intensity were reports that the winning agency would make zero margins on the deal, relying instead on the client's bottom line to determine compensation, and McDonald's humble request that the winner build "the agency of the future" to service the account. 

Keeping a team motivated through a grueling pitch is one of the most important jobs an agency leader has — and some are better suited to it than others. We talked to Wendy Clark, North America CEO of Omnicom's DDB Worldwide — the leader of the victorious team — about keeping her people inspired throughout the McDonald's process, and during tough pitches in general.

This was an intense pitch taking place within a short time frame. How does that affect a team's enthusiasm? 
It was a 60-day pitch with such a broad breadth, like "agency of the future" and with so many deliverables. That required an intense amount of focus and commitment.

I think the time constraint in a way makes it even clearer; you know it's not going to drag on forever. It might feel really restrictive on the one hand, but on the other hand, you're going to know where you stand very quickly.

So if you think about what is inspiring — being purpose-driven, being aligned, a big group of people with a singular goal in mind, a singular focus, and feeling like you're underestimated — that can be very, very motivating.

How did you keep everyone's confidence up?
I think we very much felt like the underdogs in the pitch, to be honest. We had the smaller piece of the business going into it. And you look at the legacy that the account had within DDB since 1971, and you see Keith Reinhard walking the halls, who created, "You deserve a break today" and "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun," and you look at the iconic nature of that brand, and that inspires you. And you look at an inspirational RFP — "agency of the future" — there's no one in our agency that doesn't want to represent that label.

So the team was committed to winning. There was nothing they weren't going to do. It was very, very clear what the goal was.

Is it easier to get amped up when you're the underdog? Is it different when you're defending a piece of business that was already yours?
Listen, I'm eating the big fish this cycle. I totally believe in a challenger brand, for me. I see every pitch that we are the challenger brand. Maybe we weren't the first thought, maybe they were like, 'Oh, maybe we'll throw DDB in there and see how that fares.' So I love that scenario because I think it makes you work hard. Being underestimated in my career has helped me. It makes me lean in. It's fuel. I love it when people do that because I think, now I'm really going to double down on this. Now you've really pissed me off.

Are you a big giver of pep talks? What is your motivational technique?
My approach to leadership is pretty clear. I like to be very open; I'm very approachable. I'm there every hour that anyone is there. I don't believe that I'm above anything, and so I think being part of the team and listening to the team and always including the team is my M.O. 

I don't believe anyone has a corner on the smarts, so if you don't contribute your point of view, I'm probably going to ask you for it. By the way, that's not about a Kumbaya session that leads to mediocrity. To me, that is about making sure we have wrung out every last, best thought that our agency has, and then we'll make decisions from that.

The principle always is playing the ball, not the person. So I expect everyone to rigorously debate about what's right for our brand. I mean, we are paid in that instance to champion what we think is the absolutely best thing for McDonald's to do, and differing opinions are welcome. Then we go and grab a beer afterward. I want to have massive debates and then really like each other for knowing we did the very best thing we could for a brand.

There was so much public debate during the pitch about the financial terms, that there would be no margins and all agency profit would be based on client performance. Did that become a factor in the pitch? Did the team ever question whether it was worth the effort?
No. That discussion has been so overplayed from what it is. I think our team has confidence in our leadership that we're running a for-profit business, and we would never do anything that would inhibit the prosperity of our business potential, and the sustainability of our business over time. So they trust that leadership to make good decisions on that.

Do you have any sort of pre-pitch ritual to help get your team motivated?
That's funny because that suggests that there's a beginning and end to our readiness. At one point it was like an hour in the shower and we're ready to go into the pitch, right? So pre-pitch ritual is to make sure you have enough time to take a shower. An hour sleep and a shower, that's probably what we were moving on.

You know, the person who I saw the most during the McDonald's pitch was the office manager, Sue Selig. Honestly, there was never a moment that I was there at any time of day that she wasn't there. She was feeding people, and she was getting cars for people, and she was making sure that people weren't walking in downtown Chicago late at night by themselves — or early in the morning, as the case may be.

So it takes hundreds of people knowing that their contribution, in whatever way, is meaningful to our victory. We would not have won without what Sue did, and she knows that, and our team knows that just the same way that each of them knows their own contributions made a difference. And I think it's recognizing that and celebrating that.

Was there a low point?
I think the low points in pitches come when there's no engagement and there's silence, and I think you start to see ghosts. You start to fill in the blanks because you're not hearing from them, you're not engaging. So there was no time for us to lose morale because there was always another meeting to get ready for, there was another engagement. There was another capability discussion. In all, we had 19 meetings with them. Nineteen engagements on some level. There's no time for low morale.

Who are the most inspiring pitch leaders you've worked with in your agency career?
Roy Spence is one of the best; he didn't get the name Reverend Roy for nothing. Luke Sullivan without question is one of the best creative presenters I have ever seen. If everyone could pitch creative work the way that Luke Sullivan pitches creative work — he is a gifted presenter. Dan Wieden is another very gifted presenter. I kind of see it more from the client side in pitching. But pitching with Roy was awesome, that was super fun.

On election night, political candidates need to have two speeches prepared. Do you plan ahead what to tell your team if you lose?
I think you have to be prepared. For the one thing, you don't know exactly what day the call is going to come. I forced myself a dozen times to think about a different outcome. And not just the speech, by the way, but what are you going to do? How would you lift this agency back up after a loss? You've got to have a very specific set of actions that the agency sees immediately to know that they still have your confidence, that there's a better day tomorrow, that this isn't the end, this is the beginning of the next chapter, and here's what this chapter looks like.

Did anyone from Publicis reach out to congratulate you on the win? Does that happen?
I emailed Rich [Stoddart, CEO of Leo Burnett Worldwide]. I've known Rich for a number of years. I have an immense amount of respect for him, and — it could have been us. So I had to email him just to be like, I thought a dozen times about being in that situation, and what I would need to say to the agency. So I just emailed him and said, 'You know, as jubilant and excited as we are, I'm thinking about you today because I thought about being there, and I want you to know that you made us better. I think the world of you, and I think the world of the agency. And I love our industry, but this is a piece that I hate. If there's a piece I hate, that there's a moment like this.'

This story first appeared on campaignlive.com.

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