Davy Rennie’s to-do: Give CMOs ‘unfair advantage’, get his agencies to ‘stop being so bloody humble’

“Instead of your typical CMOs, we’re really shaping to be able to service the needs of the chief customer officer … as the Power of One, we can solve everything.”

Digitas and Balance’s new CEO, Davy Rennie, is convinced by Publicis Groupe’s positioning. The pull of the role, after six and a half years at DDB Group – five at digital agency Tribal, the rest at branding consultancy Interbrand – was “definitely the Power of One.”

“It’s a genuine platform,” Rennie tells Mediaweek in his first interview since starting at creative intelligence agency Digitas and e-commerce and tech business Balance.

Mike [Rebelo, Publicis Groupe AUNZ CEO] has really shaped it so financially, we can make that [Power of One promise] happen, because we know that financial realities can sometimes get in the way of the best laid plans. Not here. We’re definitely set up for success, with collaboration being a foundation of our financial structure as well.”

The other pull: an offering that sees creative and media housed closely together.

“It’s no longer just a 60 second TV ad that’s going to solve the world,” Rennie explains. “And fortunately, we’re set up for that. What was really, really appealing to me to come on board at Publicis: media. Media are generally having the first conversations, they’re privy to conversations that even the most well rounded, creative agencies just aren’t.

“I just think, wow, what an unfair advantage to deliver success for CMOs and CCOs and brands in what is a super competitive market.”

It’s those CCOs Rennie really has his eye on: “Instead of your typical CMOs, we’re really shaping to be able to service the needs of the chief customer officer … as the Power of One, we can solve everything across the board, small and big.”

‘Permission to play at a portfolio level’

When Rennie took over DDB’s Tribal at the start of 2019, he was thrust into an ‘unwinnable’ Volkswagen pitch. He successfully galvanised a team around it and wrestled back the account. 

While he’s “been in pitch mode instantly, which is good”, the story of his first few weeks at Publicis is different, and he’s embraced being an outsider.

“Thankfully, it’s not that. It’s not the unwinnable [pitch] and the brand that we needed to become relevant. This one’s different.

“But similar in the sense that I have a gift that a lot of incoming leaders get, and that’s having freedom from the shackles of the realities of running this business, and how it operates. I am not fully across the commercials on every single client yet … what it allows me to do is bring in a different perspective and challenge the thinking that has been formed over time.

I’ve got the gift of perspective, and that only lasts for a few weeks. But it’s something that I’m pretty intent on acting on. I deal in gut feel quite a lot.

“I’m very cognisant of being considerate of the realities that the two businesses have faced over the last couple of years, especially in digital. We’ve definitely seen a retraction in programs that were big ticket programs. And as we navigate into a world where the economy is starting to recover, and [there’s a] need to be out in front and digitally mature and experientially mature, we’ve got the capabilities to deliver.”

He takes over a combined team of more than 140 people: 60+ in Digitas, 80+ in Balance. Digitas’ client list includes McDonald’s – which Rennie worked on at DDB Group – Beiersdorf, Miele, Mirvac, Taronga, Cisco, and Wella, while Balance works with the likes of Krispy Kreme, Mitre10, and Monash University.

“There’s a lot of friendly faces in our client roster, which is really good. But this role is really giving me permission to play at a portfolio level and look at strengths in our digital services, our intelligence services, and our tech services.”

Some clients will be solely Digitas or Balance clients, some will cross both, and some will see Rennie show up as one of “the all stars from around the business”. Those all stars, with whom Rennie will work closely, also include Jason Tonelli, Zenith CEO; Skye Lambley, Herd MSL CEO; Imogen Hewitt, Publicis chief media officer; Patrick Rowe, Saatchi & Saatchi CEO; Dave Bowman, Publicis AUNZ chief creative officer; and Matt Turl, Spark Foundry CEO.

Rennie will be laser focused on converting the good to great within Digitas and Balance, then turning his attention to what needs building, “whether that’s with new capabilities, new people, new services, new products.” The answers aren’t the same across both businesses, though.

“Digitas is an amazing brand. The name does a lot of the legwork.” He didn’t know much about it “beyond maybe McDonald’s and the CRM work”, which he was exposed to at DDB Group, so “getting to know that business over the last four weeks has been amazing.” This week, it launched Digitas AI, which will create AI brand experiences for clients.

“It’s really easy to see where the foundations for growth are for Digitas, with creative intelligence being something that we’ll invest quite heavily in over the next year, in terms of getting that offering right and much more refined and ready to play in the market.”

Whereas Balance “was a total unknown”, beyond Rennie’s conversations with Rebelo, chief talent officer Pauly Grant, and chief financial officer Henri Raymond.

“Actually getting to understand what Balance are, who they are, what legacy the previous leadership has left, and what capability they have has been unreal.

“They just need to build a brand and to stop being so bloody humble. They’re fantastic … genuinely a tech monster that’s just waiting to be unleashed.

“You’ll see a lot of stuff on Balance coming up really soon.”

‘Winning and celebrating and building a bit of fame’

While Rennie is clear about what he’s setting out to do, he’s equally clear on what he won’t.

“The one thing I won’t do is come into an organisation and tell you everything that’s wrong. Because there’s nothing that kills a team quicker than being told that everything they’ve done over the last five, six, 10 years is wrong.”

Change will always happen with a new CEO, Rennie understands, and “that’s good. That’s really healthy. If change and transparency are dance partners, then I think you bring the team along for the ride.”

When agencies have “open conversations” internally, across the holding company, and with clients, that leads to “a bit of momentum, then you get into the habit of winning,” Rennie says.

“Then you get into the habit of celebrating. As soon as you get into those habits, it can be quite addictive, you start to celebrate the small things that turn into the really, really big things and before you know it, you’ve changed the culture from one that’s probably done it tough for a couple of years into one that’s just constantly winning and celebrating and building a bit of fame.”

See also: Pauly Grant promoted to chief talent officer at Publicis Groupe APAC

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