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‘Transformation needs transparency and a clear vision’: Wendy Clark, CEO of Dentsu International

Interview

Wendy Clark
CEO of Dentsu International

When Wendy Clark became global CEO of Dentsu International in September 2020, her immediate priorities were helping the organisation navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, returning the business to growth and accelerating its transformation. The media and advertising giant is aiming to become more integrated while growing its customer experience, ecommerce and performance marketing revenues.

Wendy says the “extraordinary” challenges facing the marketing industry have created an environment where rapid change is essential.

“What we’ve done in five months would have easily taken two and a half years. If you're down 13% on revenue, you’ve got no choice but to create change,” says Wendy, speaking to PwC UK for our 24th Annual CEO Survey.

Clearly it hasn’t been easy to drive immediate change in a global organisation with 45,000 employees – particularly as Wendy has only met four of her colleagues face-to-face. Optimising Dentsu International’s agency brands from 160 to six global leadership brands within two years will mean change for its people, so it's been crucial to make sure the strategy is transparent so everyone can buy into the process.

“If your people don't believe the vision, they don't buy into it, they don't understand their role in it, you've got no hope,” she says.

Transformational leadership

Any business going through a transformation needs leaders capable of bringing about change. Wendy says this requires a mix that's "one part vision, one part sleeves up” to achieve a “careful balance of hope and reality”.

"The people who dwell in the doing lose the plot as to what mountain they are climbing and the people too busy staring at the mountain don't ever get up there. You've got to have that real intersection of being able to think and do."

That combination of abilities is crucial if leadership is to inspire belief in employees that Dentsu International is heading in the right direction and that they will play a material role in its success.

“People love to win,” says Wendy. “You need to convince them to come on this journey together, and that all of your effort will be worth something and it will be more noteworthy and therefore your credentials and your prospects will get better. That’s the vision you paint and that’s what you go and deliver.”

Communicating transformation

Wendy’s push for transparency has involved a clear strategic narrative, more frequent internal communications, greater access to leadership, and a willingness to admit when things haven’t gone right. This enabled her to take quick, decisive action.

"I needed to show I was willing to take decisions; however popular or not they were, and then face them in the most transparent way. People can then question my decisions, but we were unequivocal about why we made the decision, and where we were going."

“Consumers have absolutely no interest nor belief in your two-sentence holding statement, that’s dead. They want to know where you’re sourcing your ingredients, what your labour practices are, what your ethical practices are, and your report card on human rights.”

As well as optimising Dentsu International's agency brands, Wendy clarified the regional leadership structures and P&L responsibilities, and made difficult decisions on headcount. To create clarity and focus, the organisation now has a one-page plan that summarises the annual objectives and measures of success for the entire business.

Wendy says this is vital for making sure everyone has a shared culture and purpose, even while working remotely for a global organisation.

The trend for transparency in business

The expectation of transparency is having a wider impact on Dentsu International’s clients and the way they market to consumers.

“It’s the exact same trend that’s affecting the way we lead our organisations,” says Wendy. “Consumers have absolutely no interest nor belief in your two-sentence holding statement, that’s dead. They want to know where you’re sourcing your ingredients, what your labour practices are, what your ethical practices are, and your report card on human rights.”

Wendy says major advertisers increasingly recognise the need to demonstrate their positive social impact to achieve growth. There are two sides to this for Dentsu International – as a creative agency it can help advertisers tell their own sustainability story, and its own social impact commitments, including being net zero by 2030, also help clients achieve their sustainability commitments in their supply chain.

Looking longer-term, Wendy believes firms will need to move beyond net zero to become “net positive.” She says clients are already beginning to consider how they “earn their right to operate” by creating a more proactive, action-oriented agenda.

“It's not enough to neutralise what you do. You will be expected as companies, as corporations, to actually regenerate resources and replenish.”

Business growth strategies

By better understanding and serving the needs of clients and their consumers, Wendy is confident she can achieve her priorities for the year, which are "restoring growth, restoring growth, and restoring growth."

This will involve developing Dentsu International’s capabilities in key areas, such as customer experience management and performance marketing, as well as focusing on "radical collaboration."

"The soft skills of emotional intelligence and human interaction are going to be absolutely crucial. Baseline collaboration is not enough anymore, it's about radical collaboration, having a mindset for speed and agility, and being able to adapt to constantly shifting variables."

The early signs are positive, with the business recently hitting its target quarterly profit margin for the first time in six quarters, while employee engagement scores are the highest they've been for three years.

“I know it’s trite, but I wake up every day before my alarm clock. It's like I’m excited, let’s get this done,” says Wendy. “You want people to feel part of it and say they have one or two fingerprints on shaping a company and shaping business in general. That’s what is on offer to all our people, I think it's awesome.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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