Creative Force

Exclusive Interview with Marty O'Halloran

A standout in DDB’s global agency operation, CEO Marty O'Halloran has taken the Kiwi approach and attitude to New York and the world. But he warns New Zealand entrepreneurs can’t afford to be complacent in a rapidly changing environment.

With his rugged features, farmer's hands and standing 6’3” in old money, Marty O'Halloran looks like a retired All Black No.8 from the amateur days. Few would pick this big bloke as being a giant of the advertising world.

Only the lack of cauliflower ears hints that rugby was never his game. Instead, it was as part of another sporting 'eight' that he excelled; O'Halloran rowed to a national title and the Bow Seat in the Australian Eight at the 1985 World Rowing Championships in Belgium. Thirty-six years after wearing the green and gold singlet, DDB Global's Chief Executive Officer could easily pass for a New Zealander. Like a Kiwi league player who has spent a couple of seasons playing for an Australian club, you hear the occasional stretched vowel. Still, there’s no question that this Aussie now calls New Zealand home.
“I've spent over half my life in New Zealand. I came here for two years and stayed for 30-plus,” O’Halloran laughs. “I fell in love with New Zealand, with the culture, the lifestyle. Even though I’ve been running the Australia and New Zealand divisions for the past 15 years, I have done that from New Zealand."

His decision to run the substantially larger Australian operation from Auckland – where he'd settled with wife Deborah – was not only ground-breaking, but controversial as well. Now O'Halloran has made more history at DDB Global as the first non-American to head the New York-based agency and its worldwide workforce in the firm’s 72-year history.

O’Halloran’s success in running the Australasian division from Grey Lynn, Auckland was enough to convince DDB's chairman, Chuck Brymer, then he was the right person to inspire DDB's 10,000 employees. “Marty has a remarkable track record and a relentless focus on adding value,” commented Brymer when O’Halloran’s new posting was first announced.

“With his guidance and leadership, DDB has become a creative force across Australia and New Zealand. Marty knows that creativity is the most powerful force in business and has a reputation for delivering long-term success for our clients."

A long-term commitment, too, in an industry well known for its high job turnover rate: O'Halloran has only ever worked for one agency.
“I've been really fortunate to have some great mentors over my time, and I've always found myself being offered new challenges within the organisation. I've never felt the urge to go anywhere else because I love the culture, I love the people, I love what the company stands for and the values of the company.

“Loyalty is everything; I'm big on teamwork and creating a culture where people want to stay in the organisation. I've been running the agencies for the past 20 years, and they have been my agencies to run, so I've set the tone and the culture."

It wasn't the bright lights of Manhattan's Madison Avenue but the glow of the golden arches over a freshly laid driveway that signalled the start of O'Halloran's glittering career. He began with Australian agency USP Needham in 1986, just as that agency was merging with DDB. O’Halloran was put on the McDonalds account and charged with helping franchisees set up their drive-through operations.
His legacy remains with what he has described as his greatest moment in advertising: inventing the Value Meal concept.

When he was put in charge of the McDonalds New Zealand account two years later, some colleagues suggested that the move across the Tasman would be the beginning of the end of his career. They couldn't have been more wrong: two decades later, O'Halloran was running both the Australian and New Zealand agencies from his Auckland office.Not only that, his trans-Tasman crew became a standout of the global operation. Now, O'Halloran has taken the Kiwi approach and attitude to New York and the world.

“The entrepreneurial spirit of New Zealand, and the way we approach business I'm leveraging that, and it's going down really well. People love honesty; they love you to be upfront. We pride ourselves on not being a political organisation, and it been really refreshing for the global management to see how we run a business."
At the heart of the O’Halloran ‘method,’ is not being the smartest person in the room.

“I hire a lot of people that are a lot smarter than I am, and that is one of my successes in business; always hire people who scare you because they're so bright. Hire the best, then set them free,” he says.
O’Halloran’s commitment to the creative side is inspired by DDB founder, Bill Bernbach.

“I think you need to get the balance of art and science right. [Today], a lot of people rely too much on the science and forget the art, and that art is what Bill Bernbach created back in the Sixties, creating the art and magic.” Bernbach revolutionised the industry by combining a copywriter and an art director into a team to create what was then considered unconventional campaigns, such as the 1959 Volkswagen Beetle 'Think small.' ad, which today is widely considered one of the best advertising campaigns of all time.

Volkswagen has been a client of DDB ever since, but ‘Think small’ no longer describes today’s DDB. Spread across 90 countries and representing, global heavyweights such as McDonalds, Lexus, H&M, Mobil, Samsung, Spotify, Uber, Netflix and even the US Army, neither size nor the impact of digital marketing, has stopped O’Halloran being faithful to Bernbach’s principals.

“Too many marketers today are focused on what we call performance marketing, or digital marketing. It’s very efficient, but at the end of the day if you don't have some form of creative inside that messaging, it's not nearly as effective.”

COVID-19 means the top job is an altogether different prospect to O'Halloran's predecessor, Wendy Clarke. Less than 18-months ago, it was a jet-set role that would have seen him flying to various DDB offices worldwide. Now, it consists of just three locations: New York, Auckland and regular visits to managed isolation. Despite being effectively grounded, the 59-year-old is relishing the challenge.
“It's the most exciting time to be in this industry because there are so many more levers we can pull to help clients,” O’Halloran enthuses.

“We were going through dramatic change anyway, but what we've seen is an acceleration of that change: part of that is for survival. With retail outlets closed, how can you sell your product? You have to rely on different channels, and then you have to provide a brand experience in digital channels that perhaps you weren't ready to deliver.”

He may be bringing the Kiwi approach to New York and the world, but O'Halloran has a warning for his adopted home.

“Because New Zealand has gone back to a normal life relatively quickly, we're all very comfortable. But the rest of the world is changing dramatically, and a lot of global companies will drive a lot of innovation over the next six months out of necessity. That will start to impact how we do business here. So that is a ‘watch out’ for New Zealand business leaders, not to get caught out by that."

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