Can DDB Morph Into a 'Swarm Communications' Shop?

Brymer's Agency, Known for Its 30-Second Work, Refocuses on Influence, Community

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After 18 months at the helm of DDB Worldwide, Chuck Brymer is betting that an agency known for interrupting consumers with splashy creative like Bud's "Wassup?" campaign can learn to speak the much more delicate language of community.
Chuck Brymer, president and CEO of DDB Worldwide Communications Group
Chuck Brymer, president and CEO of DDB Worldwide Communications Group

Mr. Brymer wants DDB's new stock-in-trade to be what he calls "swarm communications," an idea inspired by nature programming showing flocks of birds and schools of fish. The idea that group behavior mirrors how consumers interact with strong brands became a high-profile presentation to a conference of advertisers last month. Now, the 47-year-old Mr. Brymer is pushing to put theory into action. He's got his people thinking up research tools that measure influence and, early next year, he'll start to fill the new posts of regional chief community officers, who will be charged with figuring out how to predict consumer swarms.

Sticky marketers
A swarm happens when consumers find products they truly believe in and, once there, remain loyal enough to allow for such brands to make mistakes along the way, Mr. Brymer said. Case in point: Apple, which remains a much-loved marketer even in the face of recent snafus such as software glitches and steep price cuts associated with the iPhone.

Advertisers, according to Mr. Brymer, must change the way they do their jobs to create influence in the marketplace. "We need to change the traditional models of the way we work, and be much more proactive in the ways we're influencing communities," which nowadays are YouTube, Facebook and the like.

The ideas are right, but making this actionable for an ad agency won't be easy. Things such as word-of-mouth, network dynamics and peer-to-peer influence haven't typically been the province of ad agencies.

"The idea of consumers driving the message is absolutely where this needs to be going," said consultant and author Andy Sernovitz, who is the former chief of the World of Mouth Marketing Association. "It's the fundamental opposite of traditional advertising, where a bunch of smart creatives are paid to create a message."

But, Mr. Sernovitz cautions, "the role of an ad agency or a brand is to empower the existing conversation. ... Consumer swarm is happening because consumers have something to say, it's not going to be something that's started by an ad agency or a marketer."

Ideas on the ground
Besides the questions of approach is the realpolitik of big ad agencies. They're composed of deep layers of account management and creatives, folks who are often set in their ways, making big ad agencies notoriously difficult to course-correct and DDB, at $2 billion in revenue by Ad Age's reckoning, is one of the biggest. How clients such as Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's, and Clorox, all massive spenders in traditional media, will respond over time to DDB's change in direction remains to be seen.

Mr. Brymer isn't a stranger to skepticism. He faced it at his previous employer, Interbrand, which he helped to grow into a global branding giant whose concept of ascertaining corporations' brand value wasn't just embraced by the marketing community: It made its way onto corporate balance sheets. That success made Mr. Brymer the guy for the DDB job back in April 2006 following the death of Ken Kaess. He joined up at a vexing time for big agencies, as they fend off smaller, newer and often more-nimble upstarts that often specialize in new mediums marketers are so determined to figure out.

"Getting our arms around peer groups and these insider social communities is a massive challenge," said Scott Davis, senior partner at the marketing consultancy Prophet. "The question from an agency perspective is, out of the gates, do they have the credibility? There are so many new digital and media agencies out there that it's going to be a little harder for a legacy agency to gain credibility to compete in both the old media and new media world."

Mr. Brymer presented swarm theory at the Association of National Advertisers conference last month, where it was well-received. "It was one of the highest-rated speeches in the overall conference. From the people I spoke to, it resonated wonderfully," said Bob Liodice, president-CEO of the ANA.

Measuring influence
As far as implementation goes, the plan at first is to hire one of these newly minted chief community officers for each regional office and eventually appoint one for each client. Mr. Brymer is pushing DDB to develop metrics to establish an "Influence Index" that can measure and compare the influence different brands have. In a recent interview, Mr. Brymer said he will not rule out the possibility of making acquisitions in the growing word-of-mouth space.

The goal, he said, is "understanding the influence that brands have so we can create stronger influence, and therefore more success, for those brands."

"There will still be a place for advertising that speaks to the passive audience ... but I increasingly see people as media," he said.

Mr. Sernovitz's hunch is that Mr. Brymer "gets it." Still, the question is: Is it something agencies do? What's interesting is that these kinds of initiatives have traditionally been run by PR firm. "We're starting to see agencies cross over and get it ... hopefully this is one of those moments."