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Account stalwart Scott Wallace bids farewell to DDB after 17 years

In an industry known for staff churn, there aren't many operators quite as loyal as DDB account director Scott Wallace. But even the longest runs eventually come to an end. And as Wallace draws the curtains on his impressive stint at the agency, he chats to Damien Venuto about what's changed in the industry, where he's headed next and what to do when calamity strikes.

By Damien Venuto | September 22, 2017 | news

After 17 years at DDB and a cumulative 37 years in the industry, account director Scott Wallace has announced his resignation and is turning his attention beyond the industry. 

Almost everyone has a bottom drawer, dedicated to good ideas long discarded because of the demands of the daily churn that comes with having a full-time job. And as Wallace packs up his desk and readies himself for the next stage of his career, he looks forward to digging in and dusting off the various trinkets he’s buried away over the years. 

“I’ve got few personal projects that I’ve had in my mind for some time, and when you’re working full-time you just never have the opportunity to get to them,” Wallace says. “I want to put some time into these projects and see if I can get a few of those to land.”

He finds inspiration in the ventures of Geoff Ross and Peter Cullinane and hopes to create something using the skills he has honed during his time in the industry. 

“I want to give it a go and maybe introduce a few new brands to the market,” he says.

Beyond the appeal of creating something from scratch, Wallace also sees entrepreneurship among advertising professionals as an important service to the reputation of the industry in that it shows how the principles learnt in the trade can be used to grow a business.   

“Through all our careers, we’ve learnt about branding, marketing, psychology, the financial side, design, PR activations, social media, paid media and earned media. We touch all the aspects of what makes great brands, and you see this Peter and Geoff who have used all these skills to build magnificent brands and products.”

Although Wallace has his sights set on bringing a few of his schemes to fruition, he is by no means turning his back on the industry, leaving the door ajar to potentially working with brands or agencies on a consultancy basis should they require his services.

“It’s about putting my hand up and saying I’m available and waiting to see what the industry offers,” he says.

The agencies and marketers that do decide to consult with Wallace will be tapping into almost four decades of experience. 

Starting his career at Nestle as a marketing assistant back in 1979, it didn’t take Wallace long to realise that he wanted to work on the agency side and a year later he joined Ilott Advertising.

This served as the launch pad for a career trajectory that would see him work for a number of agencies here and across the ditch.

As his career has chugged along from agency to agency, he’s shared the journey with numerous influential advertising minds over the years. There are, however, three who stand out as having the biggest influence on his career. 

The first he mentions is Peter Biggs (now at Assignment Group), with whom he worked closely during his tenure at Ogilvy & Mather between 1991 and 1998.

“I really loved working with Peter Biggs for six years at Ogilvy. We basically took it from an agency that couldn’t make ads to an agency that was doing award-winning work for a number of clients.”

Wallace’s second pick also comes from the Ogilvy years in the shape of planner Terry Levenberg, who he sees as one of the smartest people he’s encountered in the industry. 

“I learnt so much from him during that time. He’s a super bright guy, like almost a genius. He just these beautiful pieces of prose, which summed up clients’ brands.”

His most recent pick is also the one who has had the longest influence on his career: DDB executive chair Marty O’Halloran

“He employed me 17 years ago and he’s a real icon in the industry. He’s a super bright guy who will one day be seen as one of the legends of the business.”

A yarn for every day

In commenting on the departure of the account man, DDB chief executive Justin Mowday describes Wallace as loyal, committed member of the team, who also happens to be a narrator of epic stories.

The storyteller in Wallace certainly comes out as we chat about his years in the industry. There are tales about radio talent that failed to show up at the eleventh hour as well as a range of other calamities that made him question whether he would be able to deliver on promises to stakeholders.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat at my desk and thought a project was dead,” he says. “But you have to take your head out of your hands and find a way. You have to be so resilient in this business.”

Two stories that stand above the rest in his memory also happen to involve two of the favourite campaigns of his career:  Steinlager’s ‘Deep Dive’ and Sky’s ‘Drill Sergeant’.

Wallace chuckles as he recalls the moment calamity struck the 'Deep Dive' campaign. DDB had a deal with Discovery Channel to film and broadcast William Trubridge’s world record attempt in 2014. However, change in chief executives at the Discovery Channel saw all unfinished projects temporarily suspended – leaving DDB without a production company or broadcast partner and forcing Wallace to scramble to find a solution. 

“We had made a promise that we were going to show this dive live to New Zealanders but suddenly didn’t have someone to film it,” he remembers.

“Fortunately, with William’s agent’s help we were able to find a production company out of Los Angeles and they were able to film it for us. I was also fortunate enough to have some good contacts and arranged a meeting with Jeff Latch, the head of TV at TVNZ, and he agreed to do it. It was just one of those moments when you realise the importance of the people you know in the industry.”

His contacts would, however, serve little purpose when it came to the second story. When DDB decided to pursue Sky’s ‘Drill Sergeant’ campaign in 2011, the team decided that ads needed a real US drill sergeant to give them the necessary authenticity. 

The team found a US drill sergeant and then filed the necessary immigration paperwork for the talent to work in the country, legally. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, until the New Zealand immigration department rejected the visa application on the principle that a New Zealand actor could fill the role.

“On the Friday evening before the shoot, I ended up writing a letter to the immigration minister pleading with him to let in the drill sergeant, not only because we had selected him because of his experience but also because we were employing 200 people for the six-day shoot. All of that would’ve been in jeopardy if they didn’t let one man in.”

The letter did the trick and the actor became the face of what has now become one of Sky’s most memorable campaigns in recent memory.

Reflecting on these and other challenges he’s faced during his time in the industry, Wallace says that success in this industry often demands a steely willingness to push on through every encumbrance.

“You just have to have this sense of never giving up. Every time something hits a wall, you have to acknowledge it but then find a way to climb over it or burst through it. It’s become a complex business with lots of problems all the time. How you solve those problems is what makes the difference.”

Not that different  

When you’re in the moment, rushing to meet deadlines, it sometimes feels as though everything is happening in fast-forward. This is part of the reason why we often hear statements about how quickly the industry is changing these days. 

But as he looks back on his 37-year career, Wallace says the crux of his role isn’t actually that different from what it previously was. 

“It’s still a job focused on salesmanship and showmanship and building a partnership with clients. When you put a recommendation to clients, it still helps if they look at you as someone they can trust.”

While the basic principles of good suiting have remained largely unchanged, Wallace says there have been two significant shifts in the industry. 

“The business has become far more complex as media has become more complex,” he says. “For a long time, we’d just do a newspaper, radio, TV or magazine campaign, but now a campaign is made up of different media and apertures. It’s just this tangled web of bits of communication that sit together to create one big message that hopefully reaches consumers. It’s as though the industry is chasing consumers as they sort of run away from us.”

He says that the great challenge now facing the business is getting advertising in front of people who are actively doing everything they can to avoid it.

Alongside the growing complexity of media, Wallace has also seen an increase in the level of professionalism in the industry.

The hard-drinking, heavy smoking rockstars of previous generations have been replaced by a new brand of advertising executives, who aim to present the industry as an asset to the business community.      

“If you want to be seen as a business partner, you’ve got to be business-like. You’ve got to be onto it, you’ve got to be sober and you really need to understand the client’s business.”

This might be true. But as Wallace winds down to his final day at DDB on 11 October, he will be forgiven for imbibing a few champagnes as he celebrates what has been a stellar career.

DDB is set to make a few announcements about new arrivals in the accounts team in the coming weeks. 

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