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From receptionist to CEO: Meet DDB’s first female global CEO Wendy Clark

Fresh out of college and steadfast in her dreams of working in the ad industry, Wendy Clark (pictured) set foot into an ad agency, not as an account executive or a junior copywriter, but rather as a receptionist. From that nascent beginning, fast-forward 27 years, and Clark is now the first woman to serve in a global chief executive role at an Omnicom creative network.

“If you would have told me back when I first started that one day I’d be global CEO of a network, I’d have never believed it! You could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me this back then,” she laughs.

Never beyond taking on any role big or small, Clark says it is her persistence and love for a challenge that has pushed her thus far. Leaving the client-side role as Coca-Cola North America’s president of sparkling brands and strategic marketing in late 2015, she has since been instrumental in turning around the DDB North America business. Under her leadership, the agency consolidated the US creative account of McDonald’s in 2016 that led to the formation of a dedicated agency unit, “We Are Unlimited”.

In addition to leading her around 2,000-plus team across 17 offices, she launched “DDB Flex” – an operating model that creates bespoke, cross-agency and integrated teams based on clients’ businesses. While intimidating to most, Clark says when she took on the role, she revelled in the fact that it might be somewhat of a challenge to rejuvenate a great agency which wasn’t in its best condition.

“I like a challenge,” she says. “I like it when people say, ‘That’s crazy! Why would you think about doing that?’ That’s perfect for me. Under estimation is the greatest motivator you can give me.” Nonetheless, grabbing the role wasn’t something unexpected for Clark, given the ongoing conversations she had with now former DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer, and Omnicom Group president and CEO John Wren.

Staying grounded

Despite all the positive press she’s received in her high-flying career, Clark forces herself to remain grounded in her humility. One way she does this is by refusing to believe in her own publicity.

“When I was 26, and I was working with a woman about 20 years older than me, she told me that people might say some nice things about me, but I should never buy into my own press. Because the minute people buy into the nice things said about them, they stop working as hard,” she says.

However, to not be awed by her sparkling career success is not easy. Besides her run at Coca-Cola North America, she was also senior vice president for advertising for AT&T. She was also thrust into the spotlight when her name appeared in the 2016 WikiLeaks outbreak, where she was cited to have offered her opinions to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s top strategist on the logo to be used for Clinton’s campaigns.

Despite the responsibilities she already carries in her day job, it seems for Clark, the heavier weight on her shoulders is a personal one – to bring women forward in her own career. Opening up on her personal goals, Clark says she often feels like it is her “responsibility to bring women forward” with her, as she advances in her career. Her personal mantra, one she takes very seriously, is to lift as she climbs.

“To lift as I climb is very important to me,” she says.

If my journey and my career is just about one person’s success, that’s just a real waste and shame.

“What I have tried to do in every step of my career is bring people with me – particularly women. I want to create a wealth of opportunities around me that carries other people with me. That’s perhaps the most fulfilling thing in my career, having worked 27 years,” she adds.

As vivacious and confident as she is, when asked how she felt about being the first woman to take on a global CEO role at the DDB Worldwide network, she says: “I don’t think you ever think – and this is probably particularly female – you are all the way ready. You always think ‘I should work on this more, or that more’.”

She adds that despite the fight for progress, and how far society has come, the fact of the matter remains, that for most of her career, she has typically been the only one woman in the boardroom. As such, she’s familiar with the fight to have her voice heard. Borrowing her strategy from the field of communications, she likens being heard in the boardroom to advertising.

“You’ve got to know your audience and what they want to hear, and how they want to hear it. It is not about how I want to communicate, but rather how people want to receive a message,” she says.

“Just because I have something to say and I yell at the top of my voice, doesn’t mean anyone will really hear my message. To be heard, know your audience and calculate how you communicate.

Saying it in the way you want to, and no one hearing you, is not success. Being heard is success.

Given that she is a woman in the CEO seat, one question Clark often receives is whether or not women can have it all. Her answer? Yes, but not all at once. “That’s the fallacy,” she says.

For Clark, she chooses to look at the overall picture rather than the singular micro-moments when she has to choose between spending that moment at work or with her children.

“Right now, I am in Singapore for work. This weekend, I will be at home with my children having ice-cream. If I look at each event in its singularity, then that’s silly because I can’t have it all. But if I look at it over a period of time, be it a month or a year, then yes we can have it all,” she says.

But one thing Clark openly refutes, and has done so throughout her career, is the notion of work-life balance.

Work-life balance is something I don’t buy, and I’ve never bought it.

I can think of it early in my career where my bosses would tell me about work-life balance and I would wonder how that works. I think balance is the wrong paradigm. What I like to push for is work-life integration in a way it works for you.”

(Read the full article in the June 2018 print issue of Marketing magazine)