The president and CEO of DDB Latina says the success of the Latina model is proof that ‘unexpected works’, writes Laura Swinton
Juan Carlos Ortiz is on a roll. Generally, DDB Latina has been buoyed along by new business wins and award show success, but specifically he's on a roll of enthusiasm. As I speak to him, he’s bubbling with pride and excitement over the Better with Pepsi
campaign from Alma, DDB Latina’s Miami agency that swept the internet earlier that week (“Gorgeous! Beautiful!”). He’s characteristically bullish and energised as he enthuses about the progress DDB Latina has made in the past year and a half of the pandemic – later he’ll talk proudly of his team as ‘warriors’ – it’s been tough, it continues to be tough, but JCO has never been someone to back down for a challenge.
Just weeks earlier, Africa, DDB’s agency in Sao Paulo was the third most awarded agency in the world at D&AD. In April, DDB Latina launched its specialised esports and gaming agency For the Win (FTW). In December 2020, it was named the Most Creative Network at El Ojo, for the third year on the trot. It’s not been easy, but if anything, the pandemic has helped galvanise momentum.
“A crisis is always a beautiful moment to do things. Sometimes you feel scared when the crisis comes – it’s normal. But at the same time, if you take advantage of the crisis it’s incredible,” says Juan Carlos.
But if there’s an unstoppable forward momentum at DDB Latina – the cultural network that brings together Latin America, Spain and the USA’s multicultural agencies – then it’s paved the way for DDB’s global push. In May, the network launched ‘Unexpected Works’, a positioning exercise summing up DDB’s combination of creativity and effectiveness, an external campaign and an internal ‘plan to win’. Spearheaded by CEO Marty O’Halloran, it’s been a collaborative effort involving all of the regional and local leaders. And in Juan Carlos’ mind, DDB Latina is proof positive that the unexpected really… well… works.
Back in 2009, Juan Carlos conceived of an agency network region grouped by culture not geography, pulling together South and Central America with Miami and Hispanic North America… and in 2011 Spain joined in,
creating a group that spanned three continents. It certainly was unexpected, at the time, and it has served the agency well, particularly so during the pandemic.
Running a network that spans continents has certainly had its challenges. The beginning of the pandemic put everyone in a shared global moment, pulling them together. But as things have unfolded, the centre of the crisis has shifted from Europe, to the USA to Brazil. Each country in Latin America is facing difficulties – though quite different difficulties that require specific action. However, as Spain and the US stabilise, the offices are able to step in and support their colleagues in more challenging situations. And those in markets where advertising spend and activity is sluggish, the talent can help out the markets that are scrambling to open up. It’s reinforced, for Juan Carlos, the importance of flexibility and connection.
“I think that we, in Latina, started to prove the concept of ‘Unexpected Works’ before ‘Unexpected Works’, because just when we put together a new model, Latina, the model was very fresh. It’s a model that is not based in geographies, it’s based in culture. We put Europe, USA and Latin America all together and it’s been a key to our success, so you could say that ‘unexpected’ worked for us,” says Juan Carlos. “There’s a big difference between saying and doing. I love doing. We love doing, so unexpected for us is something that you have to demonstrate. That was the start of unexpected for us.”
Juan Carlos sees Unexpected Works as a concept that encapsulates DDB’s heritage as well as its future. “DDB is coming from that Bernbach heritage. We are not another kind of company, run by a financial guy. Bill Bernbach was a creative mind; he was a guy talking about emotions and making a strong point of view on this business from the creative side. And that was unexpected. And right now, we truly believe that unexpected is something that DDB owns. We want to put it on the table again for the world.”
The ‘works’ side of the equation is just as important. The insights, data, technology. “It’s not about two different languages, it’s about one. We have to fight against those people that are trying to put creative on one side and the efficacy on the other. They work together in a circle – I call it the circle of life,” says Juan Carlos. “I truly believe that data and technology without storytelling and emotions is nothing. You can get data and technology big if you can detonate it with emotion, because that’s how you turn it into something that people want to see.”
A regular Davos attendee, this year Juan Carlos was gratified to see that in the virtual gatherings with Fortune 500 CEOs, creativity was singled out as the key determining factor for the post-Covid world. As agencies compete with tech companies and consultancies, JCO believes that it’s crucial for the industry to hold onto creativity as its real differentiator as it grows its data and tech capabilities.
“We cannot forget that creativity is a force that, with data and technology, can go very, very far, but it’s creativity. When we talk about creativity I’m not just talking about advertising, I’m talking about the mindset, right? That means that our business needs to be clear that it is creativity powered by data and technology,” he says. “We are in the Land of Creativity. We are competing with tech companies and consulting companies, but the flavour of our main power is creativity. We need to clarify that that is our centre. We cannot forget that as it is our main pillar for the future.”
Without people and talent, though, there’s no creativity. It’s part of Marty O’Halloran’s vision that DDB becomes a ‘talent magnet’. It’s at the forefront of Juan Carlos’s mind too – maintaining and nurturing a culture and community and a reputation for success to not only attract talent but fend off the lurking poachers that inevitably slink around an agency at the top of its game.
“When you are succeeding you become the centre of the attack. Everybody’s trying to get your people. In one way, it speaks highly of you… in another way, you have to prepare,” he says.
“The first thing that people want to do is to be close to success. That is the main difference between a good company that has a lot of people inside and one that has a good reputation. People can choose many places to work, even by project as freelancers, so you have to build a strong reputation to become a magnet. If you’re not a magnet today, it’s hard to compete.”
Of course, the other very important part of the plan to keep winning is clients. Creating success and fame for existing clients and winning new ones. Juan Carlos enthuses that ‘the winning spirit is in our blood’, saying that as much as the creatives love to win awards, what really gets them fired up is winning new business.
And that authentic passion is what he believes is bringing new clients in. He says they’re drawn to DDB Latina because ‘we truly believe in what we can do’ – that self-belief and also the belief in creativity. When agencies start to doubt the power of creativity, so, inevitably, will clients.
And with that passion comes frustration. As connected as the network has been, and as well as it has been able to collaborate virtually, for someone like Juan Carlos, it’s still no substitute for the human connection, the visceral, the tangible. As we speak, his energy certainly travels well across the internet - but if I’m feeling pumped up now, then that’s a tenth of the in-person experience. “We love to connect with clients in a very personal way, and to work with them face to face because we are workers, we are not people from desks, we are people from life! We want to go outside – ‘come on, let’s do it! We can do it!’ So, our attitude is that we are warriors, we want to go outside, we want to work with them face to face – because we love to! It is part of the Latina passion.”
We don’t quite know when that will be possible, of course, but while Juan Carlos has no desire to make predictions about the future, he’s positively itching to be part of it.
“What’s next? That is a role for Nostradamus, right now. What’s next is not an easy one. But what about ‘who’s next?’ For me, that’s the interesting question, and yes, we want to be part of this ‘next’. Who’s next? We are. We are very excited about the opportunities that the world is going to bring in the next period, and we want to be part of that. You feel like there are going to be so many new challenges, so many new things in life, so many new aspects, things that are better, things that are worse… but we want to be there, we want to be part of that challenge.”