DDB Dubai: Where did it all go so right?

From average to standout, DDB Dubai is this year's agency success story in the region.

DUBAI — It is said network agencies are like supertankers. Big and slow, they take time to change direction. Turnarounds are rare. But they do happen — Grey in New York and London are recent notable examples.

Many agencies in the Middle East and North African region have performed well in the past couple of years: Leo Burnett Beirut, JWT Cairo, Ogilvy, BBDO and FP7, among them. But all are well-known agencies that have legacies of steady success.

DDB Dubai, on the other hand, has undergone a quiet but dramatic transformation in the past 18 months. By every metric, the agency is on a roll. Staff numbers are up by nearly 40%. Billings are up significantly. It has the highest-rising staff satisfaction numbers within the DDB network in EMEA. And when you talk to headhunters in Dubai, they will tell you, "It’s the agency everyone wants to join." More tellingly, "It’s the agency no one wants to leave."

All of this comes against the backdrop of an impressive new business run. The agency’s wins have included Porsche, Huawei, McDonald’s’ brand communication and food trust business, Dubai Parks & Resorts, Bollywood Park, Palazzo Versace Dubai, Sephora, and Canon. It’s also been named a roster agency for Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank.    

The remarkable turnaround is even more surprising, considering today’s DDB is the product of the merger of three agencies: TD&A DDB, Brandcom and Gulf Promo Action DDB. Three different cultures and companies that were doing good work, but they seemed like forgotten distant cousins of the global DDB brand.  

The agency’s transformation began two years ago, soon after the arrival of Hubert Boulos as chief executive of DDB MENA. Boulos is one of the most popular, passionate people in advertising in this region. He is a suave, thoughtful, entertaining dolphin swimming in a sea full of sharks.

We caught up with Boulos and his team at their relatively new offices in Media City to see what lessons could be learned from their success.

Have the vision to avoid vision statements
Boulos shares an operating philosophy with James Murphy, the CEO of Adam/Eve DDB London. Asked recently how his agency had created a culture and a vision that allowed them to win so many pitches and make great work, Murphy answered, "By making great work and winning pitches. I am suspicious of people who want to do workshops on the vision of their organization and come up with agency brand statements. They’re usually the people who can’t create or make anything with vision for clients. We express our vision in the work that leaves the agency every day."

Believe in your people
Boulos admits that after he arrived he actually made very few changes. "When I came I realized there were no fundamental issues. I talked to clients and they loved the agency. They loved the people," he says. "But other clients didn’t know about us. It was the age-old advertising problem of being a well-kept secret. I just had to let our good people shine."

Stability and consistency are too often undervalued. DDB has kept together its management team. Its highly rated head of account management Iris Minnema, respected executive creative director Firas Medrows, star creative director Zahir Mirza, and others as part of the core team running the agency and delivering on clients and pitches. They trust and respect each other. Clients ultimately want to work with people they like and who like each other. It’s surprising the number of agencies that fail to overcome these first two hurdles.

Furthermore, it is embedded in DDB culture globally that they only hire people who are "talented and nice." Those people are then given "the freedom from fear, the freedom to fail, the freedom from chaos and the freedom to be." As a result, DDB feels more like "Friends" than "Game of Thrones."

Be careful what you pitch for
Carolyn Carter, the one-time head of Grey, always used to say that agencies are leaky buckets. For whatever reason, business will slip away, be it due to global realignments or projects canceled. Therefore you always have to be refilling the bucket with new business to maintain growth. Boulos has made new business his priority. "New business saves you. It gives you momentum," he says. Boulos is something of a new-business expert, having been the new business director for Publicis in Paris. He candidly says, "I’ve failed more than anyone else. I’ve seen every possible mistake. The more you fail, the more you learn not what do."

Boulos shared some of the tenets DDB Dubai lives by when it comes to pitching. "The number of pitches you can do is limited, so we spend more time rejecting pitches than accepting them. We reject pitches with ridiculous deadlines. We reject pitches we think are fake because they are just a procurement exercise or have been pre-decided. We reject pitches when we don’t like the clients. We have an extensive blacklist of clients we know are time-wasters. We only work with clients we like. We keep teams small with single-minded leadership and let the passion of our people come out."

Networks and holding companies: You work for them, but they can work for you
The accepted theory is that networks limit an individual agency’s agility; that holding companies are suffocating. But DDB Dubai has made the DDB brand work for them. As Boulos points out: "An international and historical reel that includes all those great VW ads, Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ and John Lewis is always going to be impressive. DDB globally has a strong creative culture and was set up to be a challenger brand.

"Here in Dubai we have a startup mentality but benefit from the credibility of being part of a global network and the second biggest holding company. The DDB model has always been multilocal – expecting its local offices to have strong local clients as opposed to relying on networked business and for its agencies to be famous in their own markets. This has allowed us to remain agile. The new challenge is that the Dubai offices of network agencies now have to be good enough to compete with offices and rival agencies from anywhere in the world and not just agencies in the MENA region."

Underpromise. Overdeliver.
Managing expectations was the mantra advertising used to live by. DDB still tries to stay true to this way of operating, whether with clients, employees or new hires. As Medrows says, "We don’t just tell people what they want to hear; that we’ll spend all day doing award-winning work. Of course we want to do well in awards, but we make sure people have an understanding of what the day-to-day involves because we are trying to make better work every day. We may have some great brands, but to do that in an integrated way across many touch points is a challenge. It’s a lot of hard work but being truthful also leads to zero turnover."

Finally … There is no secret sauce
"Do the simple things well. Avoid doing stupid things," is Boulos’s pithy summary of DDB’s successful formula. Now really, how hard can that be?

This article first appeared on campaignme.com.

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