Peter McGuinness, an East Coast advertising wunderkind who took the helm at DDB Chicago less than two years ago, is competitive, passionate and driven to succeed. He also likes to stir things up.
Those qualities got him into and out of hot water growing up on the Jersey Shore. They launched a meteoric but itinerant rise through the ranks of New York-based McCann Worldgroup. And they are helping DDB Chicago, a renowned advertising agency that had recently fallen on hard times, regain its prominence and recapture its mojo.
"I think we've gotten to a very good place from a not-so-good place," said McGuinness, 43. "We've got to get to a great place."
Long a creative wellspring, DDB Chicago is best known as the lead agency for McDonald's, crafting memorable and ubiquitous campaigns that have fueled the fast food giant's growth for 40 years. But the agency and its reputation were battered by client losses and internal turmoil beginning in 2006, when J.C. Penney, Dell and Home Depot all pulled their business. The exodus continued apace through 2010, with DDB losing H&R Block, Midas, AT&T, Budweiser and State Farm, the latter of which has since returned to the fold.
Billings and morale plummeted, and a workforce that numbered about 800 several years earlier was winnowed to about 300. One of those excised was then-CEO Rick Carpenter, who was asked to resign by the New York-based corporate brass at the end of 2010, leaving DDB Chicago essentially adrift without a captain until McGuinness arrived in August 2011.
McGuinness was plucked from his role as CEO of Gotham, a boutique agency he helped turn around and his last stop on a two-decade, globe-trotting tour with Interpublic Group. Starting as an intern at McCann, he rose to executive vice president and worldwide account director before he was 30, exporting Mastercard's "Priceless" campaign to 100 countries in 45 languages. At 36, he moved to London as regional president of Momentum Activation, overseeing Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
At 38, he returned to New York to head up Gotham, and three years later left his longtime home for a new holding company — Omnicom Group — and a reeling agency in the hinterlands of the Midwest.
McGuinness will tell you he "ran out of runway" at Interpublic and needed a change of venue and a new challenge. More likely, some jaundiced naysayer told him he wouldn't be able to turn things around at DDB Chicago, and it was game on.
Job one was to stanch the bleeding and stabilize a lucrative account base led by McDonald's, which last year spent nearly $960 million on measured media, according to Kantar Media. That meant working successfully to retain everything from Safeway to Capital One credit cards, McGuinness said. Next was bringing in some new blood with an eye toward expanding capabilities across all platforms, especially in the booming world of digital advertising.
"I think we've hired 35 or 40 digital-mobile-social folks since I started," McGuinness said. "That's huge — that's the size of a pretty big digital shop."
Last year, DDB Chicago focused on organic growth — getting clients to spend more across traditional and digital platforms — leading to 12 percent revenue growth and more than 20 percent profit growth, McGuinness said. About 80 percent of the growth came through its existing roster, enabling the agency to beat its target for the first time in four years.
This year, DDB is pitching hard for new business, going after everything from electronics retailer H.H. Gregg to Bulleit Bourbon. DDB is also a finalist for General Motors' Cadillac account. The luxury car company spent $244 million on advertising last year, according to Kantar.
Beyond diversifying the agency's capabilities, McGuinness also set out to make over the DDB space — three floors midway up the towering Aon Center at 200 E. Randolph St. — going from the hierarchical glass-walled offices of early "Mad Men" to egalitarian and energizing post-dot-com communal chaos.
Walls are being knocked down throughout, "democratizing" sweeping views of the lake and Millennium Park, opening up the workspace and fomenting the culture McGuinness has instilled of a legacy advertising agency with the mindset of a hungry startup.
"We were not sharing ideas, we were not cross-pollinating, we weren't collaborating," McGuinness said. "Mashing up all the accounts, mashing up all the departments, and collaboration happens and combustion can happen, and ideas and sparks can fly."
In that spirit, McGuinness gave up his own corner office to share a cluttered and collegial space with his primary brain trust — Chief Creative Officer Ewan Paterson and Chief Strategy Officer John Kottmann. Paterson came to DDB Chicago in June 2010 from CHI & Partners in London, while Kottmann, a longtime McCann colleague, was one of McGuinness' first hires in 2011. The executive suite is a crackling nexus of camaraderie, bringing often disparate forces together in harmony, sometimes to the soundtrack of New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen.
"We can't ask the agency to be open plan if we don't do that as well," said Paterson, 50. "Sometimes we say let's pick our favorite Springsteen track and play it loud, but that's good."
Paterson found more than a shared love of Springsteen when McGuinness filled the void at CEO. He found a kindred spirit who infuses the agency with an attitude that is "scrappy, hungry, quicker than the competition." An account guy who absolutely loves the creative process. An adventurer who works and plays with equal gusto. A charismatic guy, quite simply, that you want to be friends with.
"Whether it's work and pitches or last year's summer party we had down on the lake," Paterson said, "Peter is an enthusiast, and I think that rubs off. I think people like that."