From what was, to we don’t know—what a difference a year makes

—Wunderman Thompson’s Jeff Dack tries to make sense of the past year by recalling where we’ve come from and where we’re going next—

A few weeks ago, David Brown from The Message reached out with a suggestion: Would I be interested in writing a follow-up to a column I wrote a year ago about my first weeks leading the still-new Wunderman Thompson.

At first I was flattered, and then I was torn. I still am actually.

It feels strange to write about what has, all things considered, actually been a great year for the agency, when there is so much suffering—much of which has been documented by scribes far more talented than this ex-copywriting hack.

But then it came to me—it’s something we talk about often at Wunderman Thompson. You see, our mission is to “Inspire Growth for Ambitious Brands,” and usually when we talk about that mission, we come up with some sort of glorified “From… To…” construct. The “From” comes from where the brand is or was, and the “To” is where you want to take it.

It occurred to me that using that “From… To….” framing helps me make sense of the past year—and hopefully articulate that experience in a way that will be familiar to many in the industry.

So, with that as perspective, I present to you my top three “From… To’s…” over the past year:

From high-fives, to awkward waves

I miss watercooler ‘sups. I miss hallway first bumps. I miss sidling up to someone’s desk and just asking them what they’re working on. One of our core values is being in it together, and that collaborative spirit is key to the theatre of an agency—especially when the type of work we do isn’t always linear.

We have technology teams, client teams, production teams, creative, account, delivery service teams and others all running a mile-a-minute trying to execute with excellence for our clients. It would be nice to celebrate the work, the effort, the grind with them in person rather than through the Microsoft Teams screen.

That screen makes it harder to take care of each other, yet it’s more important than ever. Most of us are dealing with the COVID reality from home. Some better than others. I do not take for granted how lucky I am to be surrounded by my people, my family.

And while at times it may get a bit crowded here, I would not trade it for the early twenties version of myself starting my career alone in an apartment. I empathize with how many of our team members are by themselves day after day, working so hard to do great work, and all I can really offer is my time, respect, and appreciation. I think we do a good job of checking in on each other and preserving that special thing, our culture, that keeps us united and strong, but there are days where I just don’t know how people are really feeling.

It’s why we try to encourage everyone to ask that next question, to try to get beyond the veneer of “I’m fine, you?” So, while others have vowed to do away with the wave at the end of a video chat, I (maybe for one) think it’s nice and will continue to do it. We need to feel connected to one another.

From client meetings, to client conversations

This has been one of the most pleasant outcomes of the remote working phenomenon. Seeing clients in their environment, and that environment becoming the door opener to a meaningful conversation.

“Cindy, who’s in that photo behind you?” “Mike, you’re in your running clothes… you done, or about to start?” “Pamela, what room do I find you in, today?”

It’s been a real treat to learn about people’s real lives, their families, their day-to-day issues and challenges. It has humanized the experience and I hope this transparency is here to stay. While I was a pretty open book as a leader before the pandemic started, I couldn’t be more open now if I tried. I am writing this article sitting at a desk six feet from my bed for goodness-sake!

From having a playbook, to choose-your-own-adventure

Every two weeks we do a Canada-wide town hall for our teams in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Beforehand, we invite team members to anonymously submit any questions they may have, and I answer them all, live. Oftentimes the questions are mixed with kudos (and who doesn’t love that) but there are times when I simply don’t have the answer.

I wish I knew when we could all return to the office and be together, but I don’t know any better than the person who asked the question. Nobody does. And that uncertainty is really hard. But maybe that’s the point… we are evolving From what was To what we don’t know, and we’re figuring it out together.

What I do believe is that our company, and our industry, may come out of this year a bit leaner, but more relevant than ever.

As simply as I know how to put it, our opportunity is to help companies connect with people in great numbers, to learn, transact, donate, try, buy and do a myriad of other things they want to do for themselves, their families, their communities. Much of that is made possible with this talented industry’s strategic, creative and technology chops. Those skills are not only paramount to our economic recovery, but our human recovery as well.

It has been a remarkable year. Both good and bad, and one that I will never forget. I am extremely fortunate to get to do this job every day and to do it with the best crew of marketing services and technology specialists in the land. I am so proud of our team. Thank you, David and The Message, for prompting me to reflect on it.

Jeff Dack is CEO of Wunderman Thompson Canada. His agency career has taken him from TBWA/Chiat Day to Zig, Cossette, GWP Brand Engineering, Taxi, Jamieson Laboratories (client-side as a CPG marketing leader), Lowe Roche, and Carat.



David Brown