Dentsu’s Jacki Kelley on leading through a crisis

Kelley became the CEO of Dentsu in the Americas in January -- just before the pandemic hit.

Shortly after Jacki Kelley took the CEO role at Dentsu in the Americas in January, the world profoundly changed. 

COVID-19 altered not just client marketing strategies, but also agency work and lifestyle. It also directly impacted Dentsu’s business. 

The agency went from leading its peers in organic growth to underperforming the market with a whopping 15.3% organic revenue decline in the Americans in Q3. That’s compared to a 5.1% organic revenue dips in North America for WPP, as well as a 2.5%, 2.4% and 12.5% dip in the U.S. at IPG, Publicis and Omnicom, respectively. 

While the agency started the year focused on growing organically with existing clients, “that all stopped when March hit,” Kelley said. 

The network immediately pivoted to focus on getting employees and clients through the crisis. Dentsu launched its Crisis Navigator, which has tracked consumer sentiment as the crises of 2020 unfolded, from the global pandemic to social unrest. It also began developing thought leadership and best practices for brands, as well as hosting roundtables where clients could pick each other’s brains on how to respond to the current moment. 

“Our clients’ No. 1 question was, ‘How much of this consumer behavior is lasting vs. just temporary based on the circumstances?’” Kelley said.  

Dentsu also began leaning into new growth areas, launching a commerce division, bolstering its identity management capabilities through Merkle and doubling down on partnerships with martech platforms such as Adobe and Salesforce.  

“We began to reprioritize how to serve our clients,” Kelley explained. “We reinvested that in ways that could help them.”

Pulling it off has required some rejiggering. Dentsu merged creative agencies Dentsu and Mcgarrybowen outside of Japan in May, and last week announced it would consolidate more than 160 agencies down to six global brands over the next two years. 

To foster collaboration that clients are asking for, Dentsu has put integrated client leadership teams in place to oversee big network relationships, an approach that’s led to 15% growth in integrated accounts in the Americas this year.

“We had become too complex,” Kelley said. “So we've been on a journey to consolidate brands for simplification. We have to have best-in-class capabilities in the areas that matter most for clients, and we have to make that easy to access.” 

As one result of this collaboration, Dentsu’s agencies co-wrote a 2020 trend report that looks back on how the tumultuous year has impacted five consumer verticals: healthcare, telco, retail/CPG, travel and banking. The report has input from almost 20 executives from across the network and reveals where Dentsu is forecasting post-COVID growth, such as contactless payments, e-commerce, telehealth and mobile banking. 

“It's a very different media and marketing ecosystem than it was even four years ago,” Kelley explained. “We’re investing in more integrated talent that can work across that customer journey and understand the implications of technology.”

As Dentsu invests in the future, Kelley anticipates that some form of working from home will remain the norm, allowing it to seek out talent without geographic constraints. “We don't require people to be from New York City anymore,” Kelley said. “That can help us diversify our talent.”

Like most agencies, diversity is a big focus at Dentsu. The group hired Christena Pyle as its first chief equity officer in August shortly after releasing publicly that less than 2% of its executives are Black. The agency is now focused on striving for “equity throughout.”  

“Inclusion can permeate everything we do, from decisions about our people, to our business, to our partnerships and the work we put into the world,” Kelley said. 

As agencies and networks take different approaches to simplification, Kelley, who joined Dentsu as chief client officer in 2019 from Bloomberg, aims to prove heading into next year that Dentsu has an opportunity to solve bigger business problems for clients with fewer brands.

“It's rare to find a client who cares about the brand delivering a service. What they care about is the capability and the talent," she said. "When I came back into agency land, I looked for a holding company who believed and had the organizational willpower and structure to deliver on that."


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