DDB New York’s president speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about bringing creative swagger back to the agency, how being an executive coach helps her as a leader, and a mission to change the colour of advertising
Darla Price is at the helm of one of advertising’s most iconic agency outposts, DDB New York, where she was appointed president in May of this year. The office is going through somewhat of a reinvention period, eager to get its famous creative swagger back, and Darla is leaning extensively into her experience as an executive coach and vehement champion of diverse voices and talent to do so.
Over the course of her career Darla has helped build iconic brands like Microsoft, Olay, HomeGoods, Lockheed Martin and General Mills. She has led accounts for Saatchi & Saatchi in Singapore and Mumbai, and more recently spent seven years with McCann. Her training as an executive coach comes out of recognition that she didn't get to where she is alone, so she pays it forward by helping talent thrive in their careers. To quote her LinkedIn bio: "I'm on a mission to change the color of advertising to reflect the awesomely diverse world that we live in."
LBB's Addison Capper caught up with her to find out more about her vision for DDB New York.
LBB> You joined DDB New York in June - what about the opportunity appealed to you?
Darla> There were two things that ultimately made me take the leap. After meeting Justin [Thomas-Copeland, North America CEO], I could tell that he's just such a phenomenal leader and he had such a great vision for North America. To be honest, I was also just so psyched to work for a Black leader. To not only look behind me and pull other Black and Brown talent up behind me - but to look in front of me and see it too - is pretty incredible, it’s never happened in my career. I was also really intrigued by the blend of characters he was bringing onboard. I’m a big believer in building diverse teams, and Justin's done a brilliant job of bringing different experience sets, backgrounds and talents to the table. DDB, especially DDB New York, is going through such a reinvention period and I felt like I wanted to lead that kind of positive change for the New York agency.
LBB> Stepping into your new role at DDB, what were / are your main aims and ambitions? What was the task laid out to you when you joined?
Darla> My vision and ambition is to build the agency of the future at DDB NY and change the colour of advertising. There are three key areas that I have been working with the leadership team on over the last few months. One is nurturing our culture, and I speak about that first because I want us to be a people-first organisation and really walk the walk. I aspire for us to be a place where we are a career accelerator that’s coaching up the best talent in the industry. A part of that, especially in this new normal, is cultivating people's passions and interests that might be slightly outside of their ‘job’ but are rooted in and fuel great creativity. The second is that I want us to be a force in the industry, and really bring back the creative swagger of the New York office, especially as the flagship. A huge piece of this is our talent and forcing the conversation everyday around what we’re doing to advance diversity within our own walls and attracting top talent in order to do that. We have such a rich creative history at DDB and I think we need to begin to live up to it creatively here in New York and do more work that lands in culture and represents the world. And then the third is the obvious one, which is to grow like hell, and most importantly attract the kind of clients that fit the values that we have as an agency.
LBB> You mentioned culture just then - what culture are you trying to build and what difficulties come with trying to build that during the pandemic?
Darla> Honestly, it's been tough. I ran my last agency from my condo in Brooklyn because the world was shut down, and now I run DDB New York in a flex model, but we are all still on that pandemic journey. From a virtual standpoint, I think building culture is super important, and I‘ve been pretty loud about the fact that we can’t assume that culture can only happen in person anymore. I think that’s an old school way of looking at work, and the reality is that many of our teams will always be remote to some degree. The future of work is about inclusion – and how do we truly embrace the flex model so that every single employee feels a part of the culture I’m trying to build, no matter where they sit.
When I think more functionally about how to do that at DDB New York, I'm focused on how we celebrate differences and do that in interesting ways that help all of us get to know each other as people and also take care of our people better. Unexpected Works, as you know, is what we believe in at DDB, so we've been doing a series here in New York called Unexpected Talents where different employees will talk a little bit about things that they do outside of work, like photography, or meditation, or short film documentaries that they’ve created on their own time. We’ve also been hosting smaller events in our space to encourage people to come in and just be social again as a creative community, and just finding creative ways to celebrate our work and our people differently internally so we all stay inspired.
LBB> Let’s speak a bit more about Unexpected Works. What are your thoughts on that and how is it feeding into the way that you're running DDB NY?
Darla> Well I think it’s so cool that Unexpected Works was always a part of our DNA. Bernbach founded the copywriter-art director duo in advertising, which was a very unexpected way to approach work back in the day. I think today it manifests itself in a couple of ways. The first is our strategy around talent and recruitment of 'no duplicates', which means hiring unique talent and celebrating diversity in the most expansive sense of the word. As we hire people, we ask ourselves, how do we create a collective and a team that is completely different, but actually balances strengths and weaknesses and provides opportunities to create the best, most diverse team? And the second is obviously in the work itself and how we approach creative assignments. I’m so excited about what we’re working on at DDB New York, now with Mat Bisher joining as our chief creative officer. He and I have worked together in the past and I think in partnership with our chief strategy officer Auro Trini Castelli, and leadership team, we’re bringing forward unexpected thinking around our operating models, how we motivate our teams, and the types of ideas we bring forward for our clients.
LBB> On top of your work you are also an executive coach, with a focus on helping young people of color get into the advertising industry. Can you speak a bit about that and what it involves please? You mentioned earlier that you think it makes you a better leader.
Darla> Well, I wouldn’t say it makes me any better than anyone else (haha) but it’s taught me to be more self aware around the impact I can have on others. Many years ago when I was running a huge global piece of business, I was struggling to inspire talent with a team of over 20 people, and attrition was pretty high. At the time, I raised my hand and asked to get certified as a coach because I felt like I needed to take my leadership skills to the next level and actually learn how to be a great manager.
I guess through that whole process I learned that empathy is a superpower and one of my best traits as a leader, but only if I chose to actually use it. If all of us could just embrace that more as leaders, we would get more out of our people and in turn would get more out of the work that they do. I'm especially passionate about helping people of colour because there were moments where I felt that nobody was around to help me and there was nobody that looked like me in the industry. Imagine coming up in an industry for over 20 years and counting on one hand how many leaders of colour you’ve ever worked with? It’s crazy. So now my coaching is within my agency really, and through people I meet organically who just need to have that sounding board that they maybe don’t have within their own organisations. My personal commitment to myself is to keep going until I can look behind me and see way more people who look like me coming up behind me. I'd love for all of us to embrace that, not just people who are Black and Brown, because I think that's how we will actually move the needle.
LBB> What you say about leadership is something I was thinking about the other day - people just become managers through the natural course of career development but never really get taught how to do that managerial element of their job...
Darla> You’re right. And if I’m being honest, I have to say that I used to be an awful manager. In fact for anyone who worked for me in my younger years, I hope I taught you what NOT to do. I come from a background where I was taught you have to be better; and I knew I did because I came from a pretty racist town and I don’t have blonde hair and often am held to different standards when I walk in the room. It’s just an unfortunate fact. And I realised that this resilience was actually so fierce that I wasn’t taking enough time to take care of my people, because I was so busy taking care of myself. Then I moved to Singapore, where I was the first African American to ever work there for Saatchi & Saatchi, and most days I felt like I was the only African American on the planet, it was wild. One day my boss actually sat me down and said, you are coming across as the ‘aggressive American’ and you need to work on that because you are managing people who often live at home with their parents, who need a different type of leadership style. I realised I had to care for my team as much as I cared about the work.
I think it all goes back to empathy right? Unfortunately none of us are taught [to be great managers] and we often learn from those who we work for, both good and bad. You have to be careful that if you work for a ‘bad’ manager that you don't take on those traits. I'm not perfect by any means and I give myself constant feedback (haha), but coaching both in study and also from even the bad leaders in my career, has made me a more self-aware leader.
LBB> We know that even if pathways are opening up, retention and pay inequalities remain an issue across this industry – how would you like to see agencies and brands tackling these systemic issues?
Darla> Love that you asked this. I think the first thing that we each have to have is a level of accountability within the sphere that we control. What I mean by that is, it’s up to me to make the tough choice sometimes and say, this team is skewed heavily one way, let’s fix that – and I mean fix it TODAY. Not tomorrow or ‘when we can’. It's about having those open dialogues and honest conversations. The bigger piece of fixing the issue when it comes to pay equality, race equality and equity is that we have to work together. When it comes to recruitment, the clock is always our enemy, right, and we want to be faster. Reality is, finding the right talent takes time. It takes competitive pay and equity. It takes building a team that attracts the best talent.
LBB> And with the offers from the tech industry, etc., advertising isn’t quite the pull that it once was is it?
Darla> Thank you for being blunt about it - it's true. The tech industry figured out flex models way before our industry did. They figured out perks, from awesome childcare to food on site and more. But in the ad industry, ‘the great resignation' of today is real. People don't want to run on the treadmill at work anymore, and I do think that's where reinventing culture and what wellness looks like within each of our companies becomes really important. That's why I am so focused on people first, then clients. And building new models that support the flex that our people want and frankly have all earned and thrived in for the past year-and-a-half. If our people are happy, motivated and inspired and we can build spaces and places where they want to come in and socialise when they can, they do the best work of their careers for our clients. Ultimately, that also impacts the business and the bottom line.
LBB> How did you get into the industry in the first place? Your LinkedIn suggests that your first job was in Philadelphia.
Darla> As a kid I always loved commercials, and I used to be what I call a ‘fake artist’. I thought I wanted to go to art school, but at the last minute my parents said that I had to go in-state for the first year because it's cheaper (I’m a twin so I guess I get it!). So I wound up going to Temple University in Philadelphia and found my way to a student run ad agency and the rest is history.
My first job was at a small shop in Philly called BrownPartners (shout out to the founder David Brown!) and I just fell in love with advertising and great creative ideas. BP isn’t around anymore, but that job gave me such great insight around the false deficits that the world sees when you're a person of colour, particularly when you come from a 'multicultural shop' and then you mainstream. I really learned the power of being underestimated. So as I think about my agency in New York and the culture that I want to build, I'm trying to eliminate this idea of icons. If we're an inclusive culture, nobody sits on a pedestal, not even me.
LBB> You've worked in Singapore and Mumbai when you were at Saatchi's. How have those experiences shaped the way you approach business in the US?
Darla> The biggest thing, apart from empathy, is just thinking about how culture can have such a dramatic impact on the work for good. When I was in Singapore I was the brand agency leader for the APAC hub so I was running work for the Philippines, Indonesia and lots of different places in Asia. It was exciting and fun to think about how different cultures have super unique insights and how you take them and infuse them into the creative work. I'd always known the importance of blending teams and having diverse teams, but I think my experience in both Singapore and Mumbai only reinforced that.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you entertained / relaxed / sane / busy?
Darla> I have a 13-pound chihuahua/fox-terrier mix. He makes me smile every day and brings me tons of joy and is just a cutie pie. Travel is also a huge piece of what I love. I'm the person that gets annoyed if we have to stay at the resort. I like to explore, meet new people and learn different things, so I stay passport ready, eager for my next adventure!