In 1988, Marty O’Halloran was sent to a place where careers died. Now he runs DDB’s regional business from here

Marty O'Halloran's adman colleagues in Sydney offered abject sympathy back in 1988 when he moved to DDB's Auckland agency to run its cornerstone client - McDonalds Restaurants.

He had worked on McDonalds in Sydney.

Despite the early creative success of Kiwi ad agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, Sydney admen of the time regarded Auckland as a place for careers to die.

O'Halloran is an Australian himself and says it is like a big brother-little brother relationship. He had his doubts about coming here but his bosses promised the move would help his career.

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A quarter century later and O'Halloran oversees the New Zealand and Australian business and keeps the main base in Auckland.

He married a New Zealander and became chief executive of DDB New Zealand in 2001. In 2005, he took over as regional group chief executive based in Sydney, overseeing DDB agencies in that city, Melbourne and Auckland.

Then in 2009, he decided to move back to New Zealand. It was an astonishing notion for his DDB bosses in New York, who said that you could not do the job from New Zealand.

"They decided that it just did not make sense," O'Halloran said.

"Give me 12 months to prove it works," he said. "Six years later, I'm still here."

O'Halloran says successful changes were made to the DDB New Zealand agency from 2001, which involved building a full-service operation that met the different needs of clients, such as public relations and media buying.

So much so that the New Zealand experience became the template for improvements to DDB agencies in Sydney and Melbourne.

O'Halloran spends a lot of time commuting between agencies in Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney. Photo / Nick Reed
O'Halloran spends a lot of time commuting between agencies in Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney. Photo / Nick Reed

Nowadays, Auckland and Melbourne are in the top five for the 200 DDB agencies worldwide. DDB's Auckland agency was named creative advertising agency of the year at the local Axis Advertising Awards on Thursday and received three other top gongs.

O'Halloran spends a lot of time commuting between agencies in Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney.

There is a lot of New Zealand-based talent from many industries crossing over daily into the Australian market. The key for a cross Tasman operation, he says, is to develop management in each agency but find strategic links.

His toughest rule is a ban on inter-office rivalry.

Initially when he first arrived back in Sydney in 2005, there was some resistance from Aussie staff to adopting the changes made in Auckland.

Some staff insisted that the two markets were different and cautioned him the approach in New Zealand might not work in Australia.

But he says the success in Auckland in the early 2000s ensured the same strategy used in New Zealand would be used across the Tasman.

O'Halloran believes that independent New Zealand marketing companies have an advantage in the regional market because of an entrepreneurial spirit and the speed at which they can complete projects. He says he is looking at four potential acquisitions in the marketing field.

"New Zealand is at the forefront of creative use of technology."

The lower-end work could be outsourced to India but New Zealand talent was used for the higher-end.

"Australians love the entrepreneurial spirit that comes out of New Zealand startups," he said.

"New Zealand businesses are faster - we breakdown processes and get to creative solutions very quickly.

"Traditionally in Australia there is a lot of bureaucracy and that slows things down."

The bigger the market the more agencies tended to be rigidly process focused. As an example, the San Francisco office of DDB is a similar size to Auckland with around 200 staff.

"But they have sent projects here and could not believe how quickly we can turn things around."

Despite the easy movement between Australian and New Zealand advertising the two markets were not identical, he said.

"New Zealand clients value partnerships with their agency more than Australians do."

Some advertising people talk about the aggressive, even macho, approach of Australian admen, but O'Halloran says that has to be expected.

"Sydney is a tough competitive environment. In this country we have four or five dominant agencies fighting for business where in Sydney there might be 10." he said.

O'Halloran has a reputation for being cool and calm in his regional CEO role, avoiding the clashes between the three DDB agencies.

"I am really ruthless about not having politics and rivalry," he said.

When O'Halloran moved to New Zealand in 1988 the DDB agency here was a mid-sized agency battling in the Number 3 position behind industry leaders Colenso BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi.

Twenty-seven years later DDB is clearly dining at the top table and, some argue, leading the pack when it comes to revenue.

Marty O'Halloran

1988 - Moves to Auckland to run DDBs' agency.
2001 - Becomes chief executive of DDB New Zealand.
2005 - Takes over as regional group chief executive based in Sydney.
2009 - Moves back to NZ to run Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland agencies.