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The Operations Thinking That’s Helping Dentsu Creative Invent the Future


Dentsu Creative’s global chief operations officer Andrea Terrassa is building a new shape of agency that allows its people to do what they love and to do it well, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

The Operations Thinking That’s Helping Dentsu Creative Invent the Future

“I'm one of those people who for whom the bigger the challenge, the better.” Andrea Terrassa knows that’s the sort of thing people say in business without meaning it. But coming into a role like hers, you sort of have to see things that way. 

Coming in as global chief operations officer for Dentsu Creative in May 2022, she’s tasked with implementing a whole new organisational structure for an agency network that’s never been so integrated before.

She joined the newly integrated network with an ambition to unleash creativity through thoughtful and structured operations. “We have this industry full of brilliant people who are geniuses and create the most amazing things. And on top of that they're creating things that are seen by the entire world. No other industry has more influence over large audiences than the advertising industry. It is our responsibility to enable their genius by surrounding them with well-run companies. As an industry we refer to ourselves as agencies, it is time we see ourselves as companies and pursue the rigour and discipline that comes with this.” 

Evangelical about operations being prioritised in the advertising industry, Andrea has noticed that many people in roles like hers are too focused on finances, project management, resource management or production. “Rarely do you see operations professionals that can represent all these critically important functions, most over-index on one or two. I'm not sure that there's a stage to groom fully rounded COOs that can understand the financials really well, understand processes really well, understand clients really well. I wish there were more opportunities for people to round that skill set out. I aim to do that in my team. I think that would go a long way. Because I think we have a beautiful industry.”

For Andrea, the role of operations is to reduce disruption and uncertainty. “The magic is going to happen regardless,” she says, “but how much of it and how great it is, is based on the environment that you create. So how do we get out of the way and reduce noise so that people can do their work?” That’s been a guiding principle in the transformation she’s been putting into place at Dentsu Creative.

People in any business often feel apprehension that a new COO will come into a company and create more process for no good reason. Andrea knows that. She always tells people that a well-operating company is like an iPhone. ”You turn it on, and you're on your way.” But someone has to do the engineering to make that device work so effortlessly. That’s the role of operations.

“I try to take my teams on a journey,” she says, beginning another engineering analogy. “It's almost like we're building a highway. The first thing that's likely going to happen is removal of the old road and it's gonna look like a mess for a while, we will have to navigate using detours, then you'll see some pillars go up and you'll start to realise something's happening. And then over time, you actually do have a highway. But it's really making sure that people know where we're going and taking them on the journey so that they'll stick with it.”

Along the way, you need to show people the progress that’s being made, keep them inspired by the original vision. Andrea places a lot of value on a few projects that demonstrate where the agency is heading. “They have to be a beacon of hope for what we're trying to build, and more importantly, why. Because it doesn't magically happen overnight.”

The way she’s reworking Dentsu Creative comes in three stages, she says: 
1. 'Financially healthy company…. To enable continued investment’
2. 'Process and delivery excellence … to enable creative excellence’.
3. 'Growth and innovation focus… to enable expansion and future-proofing' 

Andrea stresses that the order is crucial. “I know this is really boring for an advertising agency, talking about financial focus first, but that's the foundation. Once you get that right, you gain the freedom to continue to invest in people and technology.” The key to getting this right, for Andrea, is by building robust data infrastructure for all the leaders in the company. “So, you're making well informed decisions on your resources. Because they're are the most important part of this business, right? 

If financial health is akin to the structural integrity of a house, 'process and delivery excellence', can be compared to interior design – it about making a house a home. It’s important, says Andrea to recognise “that the work is never done, sometimes we're going to have to redo the kitchen; and other times we'll just have to paint a wall to make it look nicer.” 

The last stage, 'growth and innovation focus' often reflects the kind of work that agencies do as flash-in-the-pan, “big splashy things” they can show off about at awards shows. Andrea’s adamant about building processes to rectify that, turning it into a consistent part of the network’s output and more importantly, a by-product of unwavering focus on clients and brands. “How do we make it so that it becomes part of our day to day – a systems-based approach as opposed to an ad-hoc approach?”

“I feel that agencies often do the reverse,” she adds. “They do innovation and then maybe a little bit of process and then maybe, maybe, and only if needed, they'll do finance. I'm very disciplined about working in the reverse. In the end, I believe that it allows for more time for innovation and creativity, which is if course, the end goal and our commitment to our clients.”

To manage the job of putting that structure in place, Andrea has a business transformation team who are scrutinising data infrastructure – things like ensuring titles are homogenised and pull through to the system so that when someone is pulling timesheets or doing business intelligence, it’s easy to segment people in a way that makes sense. “It's the nitty-gritty stuff, although boring, you should see how we geek out on it,” smiles Andrea.

“Then we have the process and delivery excellence,” she says. For that, there's the project management team, which is in charge of scoping and making sure that the projects are on time, on budget and on brief. “That's really important because it's one less thing for the creatives to have to worry about. When you have good project management everyone does what they're best at. The strategists do the strategy, the creatives do the creative, the producers produce. Because the project managers are ushering that. I talk about giving people the work that they love. And project managers love that. And it turns out that nobody else does. So it works out really to have a project management team.” 

Beyond that, an important structure to get right is ensuring “production delivery excellency”, she says. “Production is so big in the industry and it's so wasteful, reinventing the way that we do production is kind of its own thing.” 

The other discipline she’s concerned with is the resource management team, allocating resources to “assign people to the work that they love most,” as Andrea puts it. “And that actually promotes growth and innovation because we're also making sure that we have enough room for those things. So the structure kind of mirrors the intent.”

Something Dentsu Creative’s operations team is trying to promote in order to make sure that pioneering work is given the time and resources it needs is ‘50:30’ – a program where 50 of the network’s top creative talent from around the world spend 30% of their time on cross-market projects. Those projects are what the network considers the best briefs, “what we could describe as modern creativity,” says Andrea. “At Dentsu Creative we believe that great creativity is creating culture, changing society and inventing the future.” Those are the briefs that go to the group of 50:30s. “What's really exciting is you could be a creative from Sao Paulo or from Milan or from Singapore. And they could be working on a Super Bowl ad or some deep fake prevention innovation for Intel – it's things that they may typically not have access to because you would usually just see the clients in your markets. 

“The intent is to begin to create a global community. Because, with a few exceptions, one of the things that Dentsu Creative has not been is globally connected. 50:30 is not only trying to elevate the creative but bring together the genius in all of our markets so we begin to raise the tide and ambition across all markets. The fact that we were able to eliminate many geographical and P&L barriers through the creation of Dentsu Creative is really cool.”

After Dentsu Creative came together in mid 2022 from Dentsu’s sprawling creative agency network, bringing a staff of 9,000 employees together under a single umbrella for the first time to design the creative network of the future, Andrea was one of the key global C-suite hires tasked with guiding that transition. And she’s a true believer in these changes. “I drank the Kool-Aid on Dentsu Creative,” she says. “We talk about Dentsu being growth for good and the work articulates that it’s landed. This is what we mean. We want to create the culture that we dream up. We want to change society for the better. We want to invent the future. It's pointing in the direction that we aspire to. I like the lens that that brings to all of our work.”

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Dentsu Creative US, Tue, 18 Apr 2023 15:05:10 GMT