Trust In the Process: Inside The Creative Partnership of DDB North America’s Wendy Clark and Ari Weiss

Last December, when it was announced that former BBH New York chief creative officer Ari Weiss would be joining her as a creative partner, DDB North America CEO Wendy Clark set Weiss up in the office where DDB co-founder Bill Bernbach plied his legendary trade. It would be something of a symbolic gesture, indicating that Weiss and Clark were about to dig into the business of making—if you forgive the phrasing—DDB North America great again. It would also illustrate the point that neither Clark nor Weiss were afraid of working, in this case almost literally, in Bernbach’s shadow. In fact, they were embracing it and using it as motivation to reinvigorate DDB for a new, fast-paced, and constantly evolving industry.  

“What we’ve been doing over the last ten months or so is creating what we call ‘the resurgence of an icon’,” Clark tells The Muse as we convene in Weiss’ new digs. “I think all of us, and even outside the walls, we hear again and again from people in the industry and our friends that the notion of an advertising industry without a DDB seems quite untenable to people.”

In an age where every endeavor seems to be geared towards disrupting an industry or overturning an institution, Clark understood that DDB’s future had to acknowledge and grow organically out of its storied past—and the creative partner she was seeking had to be able to accept that legacy as part of their push forward. “If you study DDB’s history, there was always an incredibly brilliant creative not just leading the creative department, but leading the agency,” explains Clark. “So Bill Bernbach led the agency. Keith Reinhard led the agency. Bob Scarpelli led the agency. So it became very clear that I also wanted a creative partner to help restore DDB as a creative and viable agency.”

After, in her words, “kissing a lot of frogs,” Clark reconnected with Weiss, who was chief creative officer at BBH New York and with whom Clark had crossed paths peripherally over the years. The two had lunch and, as Clark describes it, the spark was evident almost immediately. “I knew he was exactly what I needed.”

For Weiss, the lunch with Clark came at a time when he found himself questioning the state of the industry and his own desire to remain creative while also dealing with the naturally fluctuating trends that seem to ebb and flow between small boutique work and massive agency campaigns. “I think we’re at a moment where there tends to be trends between big shops and small shops, and I think we’re in a big shop trend at the moment,” says Weiss. “Everything has become hyper competitive and the more competitive things get usually the bigger the moment becomes. And what I was interested in, what I was really looking for, was how do you bring creativity to scale? And that’s why I thought DDB was so attractive. The chance to get to do this with a partner who was really open to bringing that creativity to the business was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Clark was impressed not only by Weiss’ creative vision, but by his willingness to put his money where his mouth was when it came to the business side of the equation. “I think it was very mutual as we went through the process of Ari joining us – we were both holding each other to account,” says Clark. “Like, ‘No, really, you’re really going to sit in on some of these P&L meetings with me?’ And he was like, ‘No, really, you’re really going to include me in some of those P&L meetings.’ And more importantly, we wanted to demonstrate that partnership to the agency, to the 17 agencies in the DDB Group, and really start to shape that this is how in today’s always-on, real-time kind of marketplace that the business and creative leaders have got to work together because we’re moving so fast.”

And it was in that sense—the reality of working together—that the partnership began to truly crystallize. Because getting on the same page is one thing—figuring out how to actually write the rest of the book as collaborators is quite another. Once Weiss and Clark got comfortable with the grander ideas, they discovered that their day-to-day processes, though different, could be just as in sync. Clark admits that she needed to work on her personal resilience after 12 years on the client side, where you tend to “architect outcomes so we don’t lose.” To that, Weiss counters, “I’ve luckily had a lot of time to develop the muscle of recovery.” He won’t claim to being able to recover immediately from a devastating rejection, but he knows his process and how he copes with his dark days and his own resilience has rubbed off on Clark…a little. “When we lose a pitch, day one, I want to poke their eyes out. Day two I want to poke their eyes out. Day three I hate them. Day four I’m un-Friending them on Facebook. I have a very bad process,” laughs Clark. “So we’re doing a lot of training of Wendy Clark on how to be resilient.”

“We’re getting there,” adds Weiss.

With trust still the most valuable and sought after currency in this industry, Weiss and Clark’s cohesive partnership and obvious rapport has already started to have ripple effects throughout DDB.  “People know when they go to Wendy or they go to me they’re going to get the same answer,” says Weiss. “And there’s a tremendous amount of trust that we’re placing in one another as far as how we move this forward. We’ve deconstructed the silos, and we have people working together more—when you do that, you get that trust which then gets the culture beating again because everyone feels like they’re in it together versus...competition.”

Trust and culture were agenda touch points from day one, according to Clark, and the primary pillars upon which they plan to build the revitalized DDB. “Any great agency has an amazing culture, and again, DDB around the world has a legacy of offices with wonderful cultures,” says Clark. “But I think the culture in the U.S. had been untended to, to be quite honest. The culture, of course, emanates from the pride in the work that you’re creating, so if you’re not at your best moment in the output, in the product, how on earth are you ever going to have a great culture? They are intrinsically tied.”