The reinvention of a business used to be a simple matter of a brand refresh. After a few years on the shelf, it was only natural that there’d need to be an act of polishing to spruce up the product and make it once again stand out among its contemporaries. After all, there’s nothing a consumer is quicker to walk past than a dusty, overly familiar package.
While this method looks good on paper, inevitably there are variables beyond the business’s control. Take, for instance, the saga of 1985’s New Coke. Created as a replacement to what was then an ageing soft drink that had by all accounts become stale and stodgy in the face of fresher competitors, New Coke instead became the standard for rebranding misfires.
Consumers made it known that they didn’t want the old Coca Cola formula to go away, that they were quite happy with it being a constant, and that the new drink was wholly unwelcome. Old Coke was quickly brought back and its successor was quietly put out to pasture.
The line between success and failure is so slight that treading it is akin to walking a tightrope between skyscrapers; you don’t look down.
That’s why corporate reinventions are a very fine art. The line between success and failure is so slight that treading it is akin to walking a tightrope between skyscrapers; you don’t look down.
But you can look around, and that’s the other big difference in today’s climate of company reboots. It can’t just be about your business – it has to be about the entire industry. A holistic approach to refreshing your company involves much more work than the simple logo changes of years gone by, but it has the potential to galvanise the way your industry is regarded by the public.
Just ask dentsu ANZ, the Australian arm of the Japanese advertising giant. One of the pioneers of post-war marketing, dentsu set the pace for the advertising industry beginning with its work during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A decade later, it had become the world’s biggest advertising agency.
Now, we live in an age of new media. Advertising still moves in mysterious ways, but those ways have changed. Consumers engage with brands on levels undreamed of when dentsu was created in 1901. As a result, dentsu ANZ CEO Angela Tangas last year initiated a companywide transformation to streamline and enhance its approach to advertising – a win–win for both the business and its clients.
At the heart of Angela’s challenge was a question: "How do we make our customer experience as frictionless and flexible as possible to respond to the changing needs of brands in the largest period of change we’ve seen over a lifetime?" Angela told The CEO Magazine in March.
The answer involved assembling a team of the industry’s best. "Through an approach we call ‘teaming’ – a collective focus and approach to work – we drive loyalty, advocacy and lifetime value for clients," she said.
The first part of the plan involved extending feelers throughout the industry for the right team. For those who heeded the call, the opportunity was irresistible. "I’ve always been attracted to challenges and sought roles that embrace new capabilities," says Gayle While, who joined dentsu ANZ as Chief Digital Officer in August 2021. Today she’s its Chief Client Officer, and says the experience is a familiar one. "I’ve often found myself joining organisations going through significant change."
A longtime veteran of creative organisations, Gayle says years spent in agencies, such as Lavender and Clemenger, helped her find her professional home. "The sense of possibility and seeing how an amazing cultural idea galvanises people quickly made me realise this is what I want to do," she says. "I have a strong sense of curiosity, and this fuels that."
It was that curiosity that was piqued by the overture made by dentsu ANZ, which saw Gayle as the perfect fit – and vice versa. "I was seeking a business that wasn’t afraid of what the future holds and had a genuine commitment to people and culture," she says. "Once I’d spoken with Angela Tangas, Dentsu Media CEO ANZ Sue Squillace and APAC Chief People Officer Luke Speers, I was totally won over by the dentsu spirit."
I saw that dentsu doesn’t just want to grow the business, they want to be good corporate citizens and make the world a better place through our work.- Gayle While
What Gayle found refreshing about dentsu ANZ’s approach was the drive and vision to elevate the company in a way that would challenge deeply held assumptions about the industry. "I saw that dentsu doesn’t just want to grow the business, they want to be good corporate citizens and make the world a better place through our work."
Elsewhere, Kirsty Muddle was working to forge her creative career against the setting sun of the full-service agency era. After some time in Bahrain as a consultant in the motorsport industry, Kirsty and her partners founded independent agency Cummins & Partners. "We put media and creative back together again," she says. "Importantly, we also got them to converge in both thinking and making. We were built for modern marketing."
Kirsty’s decade-long run at Cummins & Partners ended when she got a call from dentsu ANZ. "It was about a role that was seeking people to help them deliver like never before," she says. "That appealed to my entrepreneurial spirit."
Over the next few months, Kirsty met with a succession of "diverse, smart and driven" members of the dentsu ANZ family. In early 2022, she took on the role of CEO of dentsu Creative, Australia and New Zealand. "Now I get to work with those diverse, smart and driven people."
To hit the ground running, the new recruits not only had to get a firm grasp of dentsu’s reach and capability, but also its history. "Bringing to the fore the philosophy of our Japanese heritage is something we’re exploring in Australia," Gayle says. "Our ‘born in Japan, raised in ANZ’ mindset represents so much about the fundamentals of creativity and craft. It sets us apart and helps us simplify why or how we work."
And simplification is good. "Dentsu has a broad and deep capability across almost every facet of solution, from media to ads, AR, CXM, ecommerce, performance, music composition, social and earned attention," Kirsty says. "We’re spoiled for choice; in fact we’ve got so much on our menu it can create a paradox of choice."
An opportunity to streamline that smorgasbord presented itself to Kirsty early on: "By taking the very best in divergent thinking and capability, we can simplify," she says. "But to do that we need systems and artefacts that get people and products to converge."
The first part of that equation – people – is a priority for dentsu ANZ. "We have an incredibly strong capability," Kirsty says. "We have wild minds and disciplined eyes who are kind to one another and to the world."
"The retention and growth of our top talent is critical, especially ensuring we’re supporting learning and development pathways that prepare people for roles we can’t really imagine or understand today," Gayle adds. "We want to be nurturing and attracting the moonshot innovators and entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow."
The firm’s efforts to recruit and retain the best, well exemplified by kirsty and gayle themselves, have gifted dentsu anz with a talent pool that’s almost unfathomable.
Through its learning and development platform Dentsu University, the company has created thousands of curated courses that help people feel empowered in their learning and therefore in their careers. "Investing in our people really is our top priority," Kirsty says. "And it’s also about investing the time in building relationships among us."
The firm’s efforts to recruit and retain the best, well exemplified by Kirsty and Gayle themselves, have gifted dentsu ANZ with a talent pool that’s almost unfathomable. "Talent is another big opportunity for dentsu ANZ," Gayle says. "We have such a diverse range of capabilities and thinking, it’s a constant surprise and inspiration."
The application of that diversity is an opportunity in itself, and means that dentsu ANZ always has the right person on hand for whatever the next job may be. "Combining our diversity of thought with our open teaming approach means that we’re able to put the right people with the right client opportunities and not worry about profits and losses or who claims the glory," Gayle says.
In this way, Angela’s vision of a thought-diverse team that moves and acts as one is beautifully realised. "We can work as a borderless team unified around the potential ways we can help unlock our clients’ competitive advantage."
Going even deeper, Kirsty says that dentsu ANZ’s unique approach to client messaging also owes a lot to the teaming method. "Teaming has a great impact on our ability to solve problems in original ways," she says. "For instance, we encourage hybrid thinking. The consumer or customer doesn’t absorb messages in siloes, so we won’t create them in siloes."
Even when the world forces us into corners, the dentsu ANZ approach finds a way to escape those confines. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about massive changes to the business world, one of the biggest being the working from home revolution caused by lockdowns and social-distancing measures. It was a tough situation to come to terms with at first, but many businesses – dentsu ANZ included – have fallen into a groove that works for them.
That said, Gayle, who started at dentsu ANZ in the midst of lockdown conditions, admits it hasn’t been easy. "Like a lot of people who started new roles during lockdowns, my biggest challenge has been in building meaningful and trusted relationships with the team and our clients," she says. "It’s something I’ve personally found much harder to do in the context of scheduled Microsoft Teams calls versus in-person interactions."
But what kept Gayle going through those times was her belief in the potential of a conversation, no matter how it was conducted. "Every conversation, every brief and every day bring so much potential," she says. "It’s the benefit of working in a creative company. We get energy from each other’s excitement for opportunities or ideas."
It’s a sentiment shared by Kirsty, who feeds off the empathetic nature inherent in the business of creativity. "I come to work every day to be a part of ideas that solve complex problems and mostly espouse a democratic pleasure."
For Kirsty, the phantom at her heels is the question of relevance. "That will always be the challenge in this industry," she says. "Creativity will never become redundant, but a creative business certainly can." Staying on top, she says, is a matter of thinking ahead. "Maintaining our ability to solve problems for the modern day using modern media and understanding contemporary culture. We have to design for today and for tomorrow."
When that happens, the results are an inspiration. "People play with our ideas, laugh with them, use them to create better work and better business. I’m fortunate to be in this industry."
"There’s no limit to what we can dream up," Gayle adds. "And dentsu ANZ is a place where everyone believes and leans into this. We’re on a journey to the ‘never before’ as a company, and with our clients. How can you not get up every day loving that as your purpose?"
Thrown into a heady mix of history, culture, creativity and passion, Gayle and Kirsty have bonded over their shared purpose. "I think my greatest achievement is somehow getting Gayle to work with me," Kirsty laughs.
"Kirsty and I are still relatively new in our roles so there’s still a lot to understand and get across, but each day reveals something exciting," Gayle says.
One of those works-in-progress is coming to grips with the dentsu brand itself, which boasts a rich history. "We’re custodians of the brand, and I’m heavily invested in it," Kirsty says. "Dentsu has a distinctive story, and our DNA is a blend of Japanese heritage converging with modern creativity and a heightened sense of contemporary culture and evolutionary media. We celebrate the audacity to think loud, drive innovation and possess a disciplined eye to deliver it with beautiful craft and technology that’s more than just a utility."
And as the dentsu ANZ brand evolves, so too does the culture. The benefits of this go beyond the walls of dentsu HQ. "We embed our brand values and behaviours through the culture and client experience, so it becomes almost tangible," Gayle says.
We talk a lot about Sanpo Yoshi; Good for Business, Good for Society and Good for Me. It’s a halo that makes our work meaningful in many ways, and it’s where dentsu ANZ’s system of beliefs connects with mine.- Kirsty Muddle
What shape that culture takes leans heavily on the Japanese business principle of Sanpo Yoshi – success through responsibility. "We talk a lot about Sanpo Yoshi; Good for Business, Good for Society and Good for Me," Kirsty says. "It’s a halo that makes our work meaningful in many ways, and it’s where dentsu ANZ’s system of beliefs connects with mine."
Unity through culture is another of dentsu’s tenets, and Gayle says it runs all the way through the company. "Culture is a unifier, top down and bottom up," she says. "We’re an incredibly inclusive and open organisation. We expect people to bring their whole selves to work and be proud of doing so."
While Gayle admits these words are easy to say, dentsu ANZ’s positive, active and nurturing culture makes it a reality. "Being such a people-based company, our point of difference comes from how we bring people together and focus our teams, and the amazing creative outcomes that result," she says. "The work we create sets us apart and sets the tone for how dentsu is talked about in the industry."
Ultimately, brand is the name of the game for dentsu. After all, the best way to convince a client to trust you with their brand is to do the best with your own. "A brand is what people say about you or your business when you’ve left the room," Kirsty says. "So you must be clear on what you want to stand for and make sure it’s consistent and present across the experience and points of engagement."
There are several questions a business must ask of its own brand to determine just how effective it is, Gayle says. "Is your brand authentic, consistent and purposeful to your people and customers? Are you investing enough in making it meaningful and relevant?"
The best way to convince a client to trust you with their brand is to do the best with your own.
Going further, Kirsty says a slack brand can be harmful in less obvious ways. "Does your brand belief help organise the way you do business? If not, it’s not working hard for you and is, in fact, most likely just a distraction."
These are some of the common problems that stand out to the dentsu ANZ team when they take on new clients. A brand is for life, says Gayle, and must be nurtured to remain strong. "Lots of businesses invest in the upfront brand strategy, but don’t continue to invest in bringing it to life or embedding it in their own culture and behaviours," she says. "That will eventually erode the brand’s effectiveness and meaning."
How this is done has changed dramatically, particularly over the past few years, and it’s why dentsu ANZ has so passionately embraced innovation through relationships with partners and suppliers on the bleeding edge of tomorrow. "We’re fortunate that we have close partnerships with a number of technology and media companies who can feed our curiosity and share glimpses into the future," Gayle says.
"It’s by partnering with brands and communities that we can achieve meaningful progress as a force for growth and good."
The way these relationships – and those with clients – are nurtured pays heed to dentsu ANZ’s culture and diversity of thought. "I learnt something from a friend," Kirsty says. "‘If you listen to others, they will listen to you,’ and that’s how I operate now."
The product of two very different worlds, dentsu ANZ’s rich history and entrepreneurial spirit are strange bedfellows not because they aren’t a match made in heaven, but because it’s such hard work to keep them together. "It’s very hard to keep that culture in a company of dentsu’s scale, but we have," Kirsty says.
For Gayle, it’s a matter of blocking out the noise through focus. "The things that will make a difference to our people and result in better client outcomes is my constant focus, and will be across the near future," she says. "That sounds overly simplistic but coming into an organisation like dentsu, you can easily be overwhelmed or distracted by the multitude of opportunities."
It’s also important in the modern age to cut through the traditional ties that bind a company together, Kirsty says. "I’m not a huge fan of hierarchy. Direction is important, good and helpful, but long chains of command and process can kill ideas and innovation. It’s about influence, not authority."
The business practices of old are anathema to a progressive company like dentsu ANZ, and as the future rolls on Gayle says she’s setting the tone for leadership with the antidote of authenticity. "I’ve evolved my leadership style over the years to one that’s most authentically me," she says. "I’ve worked alongside some very strong personalities, which at times I allowed to overshadow or influence my own style – not always for the better."
Competition, particularly the internal variety, is the villain in any story for creative companies, but Gayle says she’s long since purged herself of any need to stack up to others. "There’s so much negativity and disruption borne from a sense of comparison among colleagues. It’s distracting and can waste so much personal energy and emotion," she says.
"A mentor once told me, ‘Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself to the person you were yesterday’. They made me realise that the only life or choices that I can control are my own," she says. "So I focus on myself and run my own race. It’s reduced a lot of anxiety and helped me focus on being a better and more open version of me."
Although it took a while to feel comfortable in the driver’s seat, it’s changed the direction of her career and that of her charge. "Now I feel confident as the person who can navigate change while holding myself and others to account," she says.
There’s not just one thing that sets us apart or defines our success. It’s a combination of the ambition of the business and our people.- Gayle While
Navigating change is a journey without a map, especially today. Fortunately, there are a few signposts along the way. "We have the amazing dentsu Intelligence Team who constantly undertake trends research," Gayle says. "That really helps to shape where we focus attention and investment."
As Angela Tangas’s vision for dentsu ANZ as a company based on understanding continues to prove its worth, the team she assembled has worked hard to redefine the company without losing its sense of self. "We celebrate the work," Kirsty says. "It’s the art that reflects our culture, wild minds and disciplined eyes. Celebrating the work reinforces our culture and our beliefs."
"There’s not just one thing that sets us apart or defines our success," Gayle says. "It’s a combination of the ambition of the business and our people."
That combination has made dentsu ANZ a potent fusion of creativity and practicality that’s ideally placed to meet the challenges of 21st century ‘new media’. Gayle and Kirsty agree that the journey of transformation initiated by Angela, far from being a brand refresh of old, has resulted in dentsu’s best destiny.
It’s not merely the biggest advertising agency in the world; it’s a company known and respected for being able to deliver exactly what it says it can. "Our depth and breadth of offering means that we’re able to stand by our promises and deliver meaningful progress for our clients and the communities in which we work."