Meet The CEO
Jennifer Berry: I want to drop the digital moniker and just be known as the best agency
The new(ish) CEO of Digitas UK is on a mission to rebuild the agency as a 'unicorn'
14 June 2023
A unicorn is, by definition, unique and hard to find. Digitas UK CEO Jennifer Berry (or Jen as she likes to be called) says her ambition is to build her agency into a unicorn to increase its chance of hitting it big.
It was in October last year that Berry was announced as the new Digitas UK CEO to replace Dani Bassil - a fellow Aussie, who has since returned to Australia where she now runs Clemenger BBDO there as CEO.
She joined in January this year from fellow Publicis Groupe agency Razorfish, where Berry had been in charge of its US northeast regional business as executive vice-president, managing director, for nearly three years. A Publicis veteran, Berry has spent 15 years at the Groupe, both in her native Australia and North America. Next stop UK, and within the Publicis Groupe, which must have been the obvious choice?
"But I wasn't looking to move. I was in NY with Razorfish - had been there for 11 years and I loved it. I loved my job and loved NY. Coming to the UK was a little bit serendipitous" says Berry. The world, she says, is ever more polarised and the politics in the Americas was just not sitting right with her. "From the Trump era onwards to Roe vs Wade - nothing was sitting right with me. The Roe vs Wade decision was just a real nail in the coffin for me. At the same I was visiting family in Europe. Dani's [Bassil] resignation was being announced and I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Though my immediate response was that I'm not looking for a job, I was also not sure I wanted to go back to the US of today. And when I understood more about the business, I just had to say yes."
Berry's decision to say yes to the job is not hard to understand. In the first half of last year, Digitas UK was appointed by BT and EE to work on its customer engagement business - worth £4.5 million in billings, as it moved from Wunderman Thompson. There were 23 new-business wins in 2022, with almost three-quarters of those becoming retained clients. Creative highlights included Nivea Men "Strength in numbers" campaign (one of Berry's favourite picks) encouraging men to talk about mental health. "The agency really is a unicorn, and I want to build it further and have big ambitions for its growth. I don't want to be the best digital agency, I want to be the best agency in town. Whatever your definition of best might be. It's the magic I want us to create to be that unicorn."
I ask if this charming obsession with unicorns informs her approach to how she will build the agency in this next phase of the agency growth. With empathy and care? Her first 90 days were spent sitting down with every single individual at the agency - more than 400 people. If Berry loudly advocates empathy, she has no truck with woolliness. She talks about the balance between empathy and strength that modern leadership should be about. While in listening mode, she also decided to get in "big guns" to further her ambitions for the agency. The agency's first chief growth officer, Sarah Hackett, was hired at the end of last year, to secure further big wins. A month into her job, and Digitas announced that it had parted ways with chief creative officer Emma de la Fosse and appointed her replacement. Carren O'Keefe, executive creative director at AnalogFolk Amsterdam. She started earlier this month.
"My role is to bring in some fresh thinking into the business to realise my vision for the agency - which is all around harnessing the power of connections to create the impact - commercial and societal. Sarah is a former management consultant. And I hired Carren, who's worked in the US, the Netherlands and here in the UK. So definitely looking for a more expanded mindset, because that is what clients want and expect from us.
"We have the mission, the capabilities, the energy and great people."
Meanwhile, Berry is also having to come to terms with the "six degrees of separation" that exists in the UK advertising and marketing industry. "Everyone knows everyone, and their business. I'm still getting used to that." But completely unfazed navigating a turf that is not altogether familiar, Berry seems focused on making the agency known for more than its digital prowess: an agency that uses its creative and strategic skills to design a more connected ecosystem for its clients and their consumers. A unicorn.
Read along for a deep dive into how Jennifer Berry intends to do just that.
Creative Salon: It's been six months since you first started. How are you going about developing Digitas’ positioning in the market?
Jennifer Berry: When I first arrived in January I wanted to understand our people. All 400-plus. I went on a mission to find out what's working, what's not, where our skill sets are, where our passions and strengths are. From a marketplace perspective, I wanted to assess our competition and think about where we can make a play. And the most important - understanding our clients, and where their needs are.
It's been really refreshing for me to look at the challenges our clients are facing - from creating a more connected ecosystem, to creating more efficiency, to a position on AI. And we have a voice at that table. I understand the strength of our business and our breadth and depth of expertise.
So when we talk about ourselves - it is about harnessing the power of connections to create the impact. That impact can be commercial or societal. But it's the power of the connection that will create that impact.
CS: Do you think the Digitas skill set is fully-rounded out, or are there still areas where you need to make tangible investments? Everything already in place for you to start harnessing the power of connections?
Jennifer Berry: Let's remind ourselves that more than £15.6 billion was spent last year in digital advertising and marketing. In the UK, there's I think close to 7,000 digital agencies but I believe that we have the ability to leapfrog beyond just being digital. Now with Carren [O’Keefe] in place alongside Matt [Holt], my very significant ambition for the agency to grow is so on track. Creativity is central to how we deliver immersive customer experiences and Carren’s work demonstrates an innate understanding of how people want to engage with brands. So whether that's experience, commerce, data, business, strategy, brand and social - we've got all these strong capabilities and in a unique place [as an agency] to be at the bleeding edge of consumer behaviour and then ready to lead clients towards impact.
CS: Your new chief creative officer, Carren O’Keefe - what is her brief?
Jennifer Berry: My brief to her is to do the most amazing work and the best work possible. And to bring that creative voice everything we do, and to create a more integrated offering, as we think about creative, data, technology together and really driving our work forward.
When it comes to our work, we've got awesome foundations. For example, the official Glastonbury app we developed last year- a feat we achieved in only seven weeks. It included the latest live updates, the possibility to navigate around the site and create personalised line-ups to be shared with friends and family designed to enhance the festival experience for everyone. An intersection of creative experience, technology and product.
I also love Nivea Men's 'strength in numbers' campaign that we did that tackles men’s mental health. Together with mental health charity Talk Club, the campaign for Nivea Men across digital, social and traditional media asked a simple question ‘How are you? Out of 10?’ to help men and boys of all ages across the UK start talking more regularly about their mental health as part of a healthy mental fitness routine. I absolutely love that campaign. And then OreoTwists, where we had to really almost rethink about that product and reinvent the social channel. It was pretty cool.
And Carren will uplift our creative brilliance even further.
Also, we've partnered with Subway to drive engagement with their regular guests through their loyalty programme and to launch Series, 'the new way' to Subway, through their CRM programme and their app. I love this work so much, so have to give it a shout out. We're also the lead agency for the recently launched Love Island partnership, creating Love Island x Subway content for their social media channels. With the customer always at the centre, we’re connecting the dots across the brand and markets, blending our capabilities to help Subway create impact.
CS: In the UK, the industry has always been self-critical and recognises it needs to do a better job of promoting itself by not only shining a light on great creative work, but also the broad range of skills the industry offers. Do you think this is a global issue?
Jennifer Berry: I think we're having similar challenges in the US. It is symptomatic of where we've all come through over the last few years - with people rethinking what they actually want out of their lives and their careers. But I feel very positive, especially when we l look at the next generation, right? The digital natives. They live and breathe what we do, and I believe they're going to be the voice of our future. It's about making them see that as an industry we can provide new way of leadership, and that they can truly make an impact. I'm really excited about our partnership with Next Tech girls - an accelerator programme that will also help our clients because we now have access to insights from the next generation.
For me it's important that we not only motivate that next generation of talent, but also get our clients connected to the voices of the future as well.
CS: Adland is all about transforming businesses. As it should be. What that also means is that most agencies now offer an integrated offering to their clients - everything from traditional to digital. What makes you unique for clients and their needs?
Jennifer Berry: Yes a lot of agencies talk about it, but do they really practice what they preach? At DIgitas UK we have 60 data scientists, 40 creatives, around 90 technologists, and about 40 people in our strategy team. We have the depth and the breadth when it comes to solving our clients' problems, and also the magic that comes when we blend those skills together. I really do believe that's a unicorn effect we are creating for our clients.
CS: 2023 will likely be an inflection point for AI marketing. So what exactly are clients are asking of you? And what do you think they should really be demanding from you?
Jennifer Berry: We've already built an An AI Lab to bridge the gap between AI innovation and client businesses. You have to remember that as a digital agency, we've been really fortunate to have always been in the face of uncertainty. So that ability to flex and be more agile, and have more confidence when it comes to asking questions -or learning with the changing tim - runs in our DNA. So we are ready for our clients when it comes to AI. But when thinking about AI, the question that we should all be asking is how do we set the right vision and define where we can make the most impact as a business. And also be thinking about privacy, access and inclusion - the key ingredients to making sure that we can all succeed.
CS: Outside of work what are you most passionate about?
Jennifer Berry: My nieces and nephews. I'm borderline obsessed with them. And I'm really passionate about empowering female voices when it comes to health - championing women and addressing gendered inequities in health; breaking down taboos that some of us have grown up with and making sure that we are really leading the way for for my little nieces coming through that charge.