Q&A: Dentsu Aegis Network Americas CEO Nick Brien Discusses Industry Issues, Hints at ‘New Dentsu Model’

Adweek caught up with Brien at 4A's Decisions 20/20

Nick Brien moderated a panel at 4A's Decisions 20/20.

Dentsu Aegis Network CEO of the Americas Nick Brien issued an industry “call to arms” last week during a panel at 4A’s Decisions 20/20.

“I believe there has been a fundamental shift in the balance of power. We’re living in the age of the empowered consumer,” Brien said during the panel before calling on the industry to “evolve marketing to mattering.”

Adweek sat down with Brien later that day after he also moderated a panel with Initiative global CEO Mat Baxter, Digitas North America president Jodi Robinson, Hearts & Science CEO Erin Matts and GroupM North America CEO Tim Castree to discuss the state of advertising and what the future holds.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: What do you think is the single biggest crisis agencies are facing right now? Do you agree with Mat Baxter’s assessment regarding regaining client trust as the biggest issue for agencies?
Nick Brien: I don’t think it’s a crisis. I think there are isolated incidences. We seem to be throwing this around like one universal affliction in every client relationship, and we have so many wonderful, trusting, deep and respectful relationships where we’re established business partners.

When [Baxter and others on the panel] talk about trust, we all agree we have to break that down. There’s trust as in you’re trusting my professional judgment to spend your money and orchestrate that expenditure in this omnichannel world in the smartest way possible. And then the second dimension of trust is “Are you going to do that in an ethical way? Are you going to be transparent in the way that you’re working and spending the money I give to you as my agent?”

There’s another dimension of trust, which is “Are you always going to be honest with me when things go wrong?” Marketing is as much art as it is science. We’re all moving forward. Look at situations that are going on with Facebook. No one would have imagined … that technologies that have been developed to allow people to share would be used in such negative ways. We all live in the world of unintended consequences.

If I have a zero tolerance for risk and I’m not prepared to champion risk or celebrate that and allow people to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes, how do we become stronger? How do we grow? Because so much out there, especially in the advancement of technology and the use of platforms, no one knows all the answers.

The trust dimension is always important, it is always paramount and we all need to be as proactive as we can in being as trustworthy and transparent as we can in business.

What specific steps are you taking at Dentsu Aegis Network to attract and retain diverse talent and foster a sense of inclusivity?
There are three specific responsibilities that we have to our own organization.

When it comes to hiring, every slate needs to represent the greatest level of diversity and if it doesn’t, the slate is rejected.

We are always looking at the numbers of [underrepresented groups] in leadership roles and how we’re making sure that our population of our organization is as diverse throughout the ranks [as possible.] Where we tend to have some issues is as you look higher in the organization. So we’re being very specific about what those metrics are that we expect to demonstrate the progress that we want to see because we believe that what you measure really matters.

We’re establishing a recruiting program that is as diverse in the educational establishments and the workplace establishments that wouldn’t normally or have historically been considered to be recruiting territory for the advertising and marketing industry and we’re looking to be very proactive in partnerships in education and other professional organizations.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of where clients are selecting to spend their money?
It’s hard to say “the client” because it depends on if you’re in automotive or if you’re an ice cream manufacturer. It also depends if you’re an incumbent player or you’re a DTC challenger.

The opportunity for DTC for the new brands and the challenger brands to go direct is a combination of supply-side and demand-side. They are spending their money initially entirely on digital platforms.

We’re always looking to spend our money as we can to create the highest level of engagement with any individual. When we’re talking about people-based marketing, we’re focusing on the person and their journey, and your journey in a category is going to be very different from mine. We will spend the money according to the challenges that we have for the individual category. Is digital taking more? Sure. Over 60 percent of the money we spend is now in digital channels, but that’s not just with exclusive digital platforms. All media companies have an analog capability, have a digital capability.

Dentsu Aegis Network’s combination of creative and media teams, and the recent creation of creative executive leadership positions seem to mark a transition from the network’s focus on the media side of the business. What led to the shift? Is it something we can expect more of, and what’s in store for the evolution of Dentsu Aegis Network?
That is a huge question and it’s going to be announced all in good time. We’re moving quickly to make sure we’re about services and solutions. DAN is a young organization. It’s really only five or six years old, because Dentsu acquired Aegis six years ago, acquired Merkle two years ago.

There’s heavy expertise and a lot of power in media and data at Isobar and creative with Mcgarrybowen. What we haven’t done is necessarily organize ourselves into being integrated by design so we are as strong in integrating marketing solutions as we are in marketing services. We want to be in the business of both expert marketing services and integrated brand solutions.

We believe in integration. We believe in the power to drive transformation through marketing integration, because we believe that marketing’s too fragmented, it’s too complicated, it needs to be more joined up. We are going to be doing that. The new Dentsu model is going to be much more committed to making sure that we believe in helping our clients win, keep and grow their best customers.

That is going to be the halo at the DAN level that hasn’t been there before and we’re going to organize in service lines: creative and content, all things media, all things customer experience and commerce, CRM and loyalty. We’re going to organize our agencies by global service line and we’re going to invest more money at the strategic, orchestration level.

How do you view Dentsu’s evolution unfolding over the next five years?
You are going to hear about that in very pronounced ways over the next six months. Needless to say, Dentsu is the only Asia-based global marketing communications company and it is demonstrating, through its strategic firepower, the wonderful and amazing assets that it has acquired today, and it continues to acquire. Everything that they do is thoughtful and long-term.

The Japanese model and the Dentsu way has always been much more about total solutions. It’s being very long-term. It’s unbelievably deep customer or client-centricity. It is a tremendous strength and resource in content, in sports, in media platforms, in content development. So their alignment in and shaping popular culture fuels and strengthens the way they think about building brands.

It’s not just a difference, I think it’s superior. What they’ve always done is demonstrate that they have tremendous expertise in what area of a marketing discipline that they have. They also have a very strategic way of making sure that everything is well connected and orchestrated.

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