Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In a year in which two well-known advertising agencies closed their doors, survival in the sector has become a key issue — no more so than for DDB SA.

Two years ago the agency, under the stewardship of CEO Emmet O’Hanlon, was flying high, with prestige accounts that included FNB, McDonald’s and Telkom, and a staff complement of more than 100.

Then the bottom fell out as FNB moved to FoxP2, McDonald’s moved to Owen Kessel Leo Burnett, and Telkom — in a controversial pitch that caused DDB to be sanctioned by the Association for Communication & Advertising — switched to a trio of specialist agencies, including WPP-owned Wunderman.

Emmet O’Hanlon: Talking to staff and keeping them motivated is central to turnaround strategies. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Emmet O’Hanlon: Talking to staff and keeping them motivated is central to turnaround strategies. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Now, through dogged perseverance, O’Hanlon says his claw-back strategy is paying dividends. In a tough four-way pitch, DDB has won the digital business of African Bank, worth about R8m/year. The agency is also handling African Bank’s above-the-line advertising.

Other accounts in the stable include some Unilever brands, Nigerian Breweries and Honda.

Speaking for the first time since losing the R50m Telkom account, O’Hanlon says he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t a huge blow. More than 40 people were retrenched and he’s still scratching his head as to the real reason. DDB won the only gold Apex advertising effectiveness award this year for Telkom’s "summer" campaign, which O’Hanlon says is proof of the agency’s ability to deliver advertising that provides quantifiable bottom-line results.

He believes there were forces at play in the process beyond his control, but says that in the interests of rebuilding DDB he’s leaving the issue well alone.

One of the big problems facing any agency that loses a big account is finding enough work to keep key people motivated and busy, he says. To that end O’Hanlon developed a five-point reboot plan, which might well be a blueprint for agencies in a similar position.

First was refocusing completely on producing high-end creative work for existing clients, then making sure every piece of advertising would be deemed effective in promoting client profitability.

O’Hanlon also gave weekly updates to remaining staff on efforts to win new business, and drove a process that ensured all staff were kept busy and productive and did not wallow in the adverse trading position.

Fifth, he placed huge emphasis on improving the agency’s cross-platform integration offering.

O’Hanlon says the African Bank win is testimony to the success of the plan and that, once again, the phone is starting to ring.

So what mistakes were made in the turnaround process? O’Hanlon says he should have taken more time to engage with more staff. The lesson for ad agency leaders faced with adversity is to recognise that it takes time to turn around a business and that staff need to be told daily of their quality and strength, and be regularly comforted and assured. O’Hanlon adds while he’s sad that badge agencies such as Y&R Cape Town and the Jupiter Drawing Room Johannesburg have closed, DDB has emerged stronger and leaner (the staff now numbers 50).