Year in Review: Priya Patel of DDB Aotearoa

Each year, StopPress asks players in the local industry for their reflections on the year that was. Brought to you by NZME in 2021, we’re shaking things up a bit by chatting to some of the biggest change makers of the year. Those individuals who’ve made brave moves, impactful work and ultimately disrupted the market – because what was 2021 without a little disruption!

Continuing our 2021 retrospective is Priya Patel who became DDB Group Aotearoa’s first-ever woman CEO in 2021. She shares with us the reasoning behind her move to New Zealand, where DDB Aotearoa is headed and what more needs to be done to create a more diverse industry in 2022.

2021 was…


Aside from arriving in New Zealand to lockdown and MIQ, how’ve you found your time in the new position?

Overall, it’s been great. Having moved from another DDB office, culturally, the DNA is quite similar. It’s wonderful to be on the ground, even if it was over Teams initially, everyone I met was so welcoming and delightful. We’ve got a lovely leadership team, and meeting them and the 260 staff was interesting in the middle of lockdown. I was going to meet people in groups of 10 in real life, we were going to have a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich, but this changed to Teams meets, which unintentionally turned into little focus groups. So quite the introduction!

What attracted you to the role, why was 2021 the right time for this move?

When Justin [Mowday] and Damon [Stapleton] announced that they would be departing, DDB looked broadly to fill the role, including outside of the network and from within. Already working closely with Marty O’Halloran, I had a few good chats with him before he asked me what I thought of the prospect of a move – and of course I felt that New Zealand was an amazing opportunity.

Having been based in Sydney for the past four years prior to my move, we were always a little jealous of the quality of the creative that came out of New Zealand. I think the creative here has always punched above its weight, and I think that it’s recognised globally. I was excited to see firsthand what drives that – how Kiwi creatives produce such great work so consistently.

We saw quite a bit of movement within the industry (and at DDB) in 2021. What does that say for where DDB is going in terms of its personnel? What are you doing to attract more talent to your agency?

I think movement is inevitable when there’s changes in leadership teams, but I’ve been really pleased with the depth and the quality of the people in the business, and I think we have a lot of incredibly loyal staff. Plus, with change comes the prospect of bringing in new people with new energy and fresh perspective.

Matty Burton is our new group CCO who has joined from Google where he was running APAC. We’ve hired Kate Heatley recently, she’s a new lead business partner, Jack Murphy, who’s just returned from Ireland, who I think is one of New Zealand’s best strategists. So I feel like we’ve got lots of fresh impetus coming in as well.

This all helps build and shape the culture, something I believe is created both from the top down and bottom up. Leadership must make clear statements of intent about how we behave, what we believe in, and really lead by example. But I do think ultimately, it’s the people that make the place what it is, and so who they are, how they act, what they want, shapes us and our direction more than one individual or two individuals at the top.

The first thing I did when I came into the business was look at our annual employee survey – insight into what’s working and what isn’t. And I’ve tried to tackle some of the bigger issues that were raised. Things like flexibility, and creating a consistent policy across the group, where perhaps there wasn’t one, or even things like remuneration where we had a policy, but it wasn’t super clearly articulated.

I really believe in that kind of transparency. I’m also happy to try something, see if it works, and then optimise it again. It’s my job to make people comfortable with that kind of change. So every time something shifts, we should reframe that as an opportunity. And if you’re honest and transparent about that, people respond in kind.

On the back the consultancy wave, where do you think the future creative agency is headed?

I’m a big believer in just running your own race. So, you can’t spend too much time looking sideways, when really what we’ve got to do is look ahead and figure out what we offer as a group, and what are our strengths are. I’m confident in our model and the capabilities we have. We have good data, digital, and comms capability, and there’s been consistent growth in these areas for a decade. So I’m confident that there’s appetite for our services, both strategically and in implementation. The trick is joining it all up for our clients, and that’s what helps push a brand forward. When you can create that complete brand experience, and resolve every touch point along the consumer journey, there’s real value there for a client, and especially if they can get that all through one front door.

That’s the strength of the DDB Group model, that our clients get to tailor-make the offer that they want. So they don’t have to take it all, but if they want PR and CRM capability, and a bit of tech build, they can build that model. And we build bespoke teams for clients which is an unlock to not making the agency clunky.

Overall, as an industry, what we do hasn’t hugely evolved. It’s just the ways in which we bring that to market are shifting and changing.

How do you think marketing is going to respond to this change?

This is where your specialist model comes into play. What brands now have to juggle is that mixture of filling the top of the funnel; broadcast mass comms that gets many eyeballs on something, but then moving further down through the journey, being able to have a bank of customers that you can target really specifically, and then actually build loyalty and relationships with. So again, our role is to help clients build that complete brand experience, from first initial interest all the way through to engendering loyalty.

Looking forward to the next 12 to 18 months, what are your immediate goals for DDB?

I would like us to stay at the top of our game creatively and strategically. I’ve walked into a healthy and successful business, and we have huge ambitions to continue that trajectory. Other than that, our ambitions are simple. We have an amazing client list, there are so many amazing brands, and we want to work with them on their big problems and find creative and effective solutions to those challenges. We believe that emotionally driven, tech savvy creative will drive meaningful growth for these companies.

We also want to have a load of fun along the way. We want to keep a culture that is full of talented and nice people, decent human beings who understand work life balance. And then finally, to do that, we also want to make sure that the business feels really inclusive and as diverse as it can be. We’re pretty good on gender equality, around 60 percent of the agency is female, but we’ve still got work to do on our Maori/Pacifica. We’re at 12 percent and need to get to 17 percent.

What do you think are some of the stumbling blocks for agencies when it comes to diversity?

I think there’s a few things. If I think to my own experience in the UK as a middle-class Indian woman, I had never heard of the industry growing up. So, there’s a base level awareness problem for many people to even consider it as a career path.

One of the things we’re looking at closely, and it’s alongside the work the Comms Council is doing, is how we build awareness earlier. So, getting into schools, getting into programmes where we’re showcasing what the industry is, so that you’ve got more people in that consideration funnel. The second part is the whole see it, be it mentality. I think the more we can show leaders from different backgrounds and different experiences, the more people can believe and relate to the industry. So, I hope in some small way I can contribute to that.

Quick fire 10

  1. Favourite DDB campaign of 2021: Love all our children equally but think Steinlager Alt Blacks was a real goody.
  2. Least favourite local campaign: I think we’re all just hustling to do the best we can. 
  3. Biggest move within NZ Adland in 2021: Matty Burton joining DDB Group from Google APAC.
  4. Most unexpected client move of 2021: Taking this question literally, our client Sky just sold their Mt Wellington campus – it marks the end of an era but is great news for them off the back of a massive year. 
  5. The most underreported news event/story of the year: Microplastics (nurdles) in seafood.
  6. Changemaker of 2021: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – the woman is fire.
  7. Most impactful brand of 2021: Pfizer. Obviously. 
  8. A learning from lockdown: We have the capacity for resilience.
  9. 2021 trend I won’t miss in 2022: Tracking vaccination rates by DHB.
  10. Most awkward video meeting moment: The enduring awkwardness of reminding people “you’re still on mute”.

For more Year in Review 2021 brought to you by NZME, click here.

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