Dani Bassil, CEO of Clemenger BBDO, has been back in Australia for almost 10 months after spending 20 years in the UK and almost five as the CEO of Digitas.
Her appointment to the Clems top job has coincided with the agency merging its Sydney and Melbourne offices and a period of significant flux in adland. Like a caustic and cutting schoolmaster come parents’ evening, B&T asked her how she thought she had been getting on.
“I would say we’re about a seven out of 10 but I’m going to mark us a six,” she said, after some deliberation.
“I want us to push as far as we can possibly go and we need a bit of room for that. The body of work that has been coming out and is due to come out in the next month is pretty phenomenal. I think there will be very few agencies in Australia with a body of work that we’ll have this year.”
B&T is talking to Bassil over a video call a fortnight after the agency revealed “Drylandia” its new work for Carlton Dry. She’s in Clems’ swish harbour-side offices in Sydney while we’re tucked in the corner of B&T‘s Surry Hills digs.
“I loved it!” she exclaimed.
“It’s very different and that’s the point of work. If we created work that was the same it would be really boring, right? Carlton Dry is a brand that has a sense of fun and youthfulness and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“We built this humorous land that parodies beer provenance stories. We created a world that we can build on as we keep going. This is a great brand creative platform for Carlton Dry.”
Does this mean that we’ll see more left-field and slightly off-the-wall to come for Clems’ other clients? Certainly, the approach would likely work for VB and TABtouch. However, customers would perhaps expect slightly more serious adverts from NAB, for example.
“Well, I don’t know, not all the time!” she says, laughing.
“Where it’s warranted, and I think it is for this brand [Carlton Dry], you will, absolutely. The work has to fit the brief and the problem that you’re trying to solve and I think this does that beautifully. When we’ve tested it, it’s for a younger audience and they’ve engaged with it and it’s been very successful.”
There is, however, a spectre looming over Autsralia’s agencies – the mooted ban on gambling advertising. This could come into effect by 2026, following a phased approach that would see ads for wagering firms banned on different types of media one after another. There has been significant pushback from the advertising industry but there is a feeling of inevitability to the ban.
For agencies like Clemenger BBDO with large gambling clients, the legislation would likely usher in a significant rethink in how they do business. However, thanks to her two decades in the UK, Bassil said feels well-equipped to deal with such a dramatic change.
“I lived through the high fat, salt, sugar (HFSS) legislation in the UK. We had many clients in that category from Oreo to Kellogg’s,” she explained.
“My point of view on all of these things is that I leave it to the experts and the government to make these decisions. Whatever decision they make, we have to abide by.
“If we do have a drop in revenue on any account, we find new business opportunities to make that up or new projects from other clients. With HFSS, we continued to grow in my old business – even though that was significant – because that’s just what we do. I’m not staying awake at night thinking that it’s going to kill our business. We’ll find a way to make it work and we’ll support our clients through it, which is the main thing.”
In terms of finding new clients, Bassil remained coy, explaining that Clems is not targeting any types of businesses or sectors in particular. Instead, she explained that her ambition was to find “like-minded clients” that matched the agency’s ambition and momentum, driven by the “calibre of the talent” it holds. However, she did say that the agency has some very exciting work coming up.
In fact, she explained the agency had done “a lot of new business activity” in Q2 and Q3 of this year and that it was “starting to pay off.”
That new business activity, however, has failed to make it into the public realm because of clients dragging their feet, which perhaps explains why Clems might have seemed relatively quiet to outsiders.
“We pitched something in April and it’s still in the procurement cycle. It’s just taking so much longer to award – and it was the same thing in the UK, as well. Everything is just much more prolonged,” she explained.
“I don’t think the only strategy has been to keep the clients we’ve got and continue doing great work for them. That’s certainly not been the sole strategy since I’ve been here. We’ve been pushing pretty hard on the new business front – it’s just taking a lot longer to land than what we’ve expected, I suppose, or what the client has said when we’ve started.”
The cause of that sluggishness, Bassil said, is tricky to pin down exactly.
“Honestly, if I knew that, I would pay myself a lot of money because it’s a global problem,” she explained, but speculated the root causes lie in everything from supply chain disruptions to significant currency fluctuations.
As a result, this is taking longer for clients to decide who should win pitches and when the work should start.
“There’s so much stuff going on within organisations, they’re probably thinking about 100 different things. We’re just part of a much bigger cog for them in the grand scheme of things,” she said.
That is certainly true for agencies of all shapes and sizes in Australia. But, if Bassil’s ambition is anything to go by, Clems could become a cog in the machine of many, many businesses. Watch this space.
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