Chief Growth Officer Elaine Purcell on Why Red Flags Don't Turn Green & Other Lessons from DDB North America

Jason Papp
December 26, 2023

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As Chief Growth Officer for DDB North America, Elaine Purcell is intently focused on commercial heights. But in her exclusive interview with THE GOODS, she discusses the principles that have underpinned her career to date, where she turns for inspiration and why red flags turn don't green.

NEW YORK - Elaine Purcell was undertaking her Bachelor's in Business Studies, specialising in Marketing and French, when she sat one module that would guide her whole career. "I had this amazing professor in Limerick. His name was Maurice Patterson. And he taught consumer behaviour. And it was like, that's what I want to do, what I want to be," she recollects.

Kevin Roberts, former Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi came to speak at the University of Limerick where Purcell was studying. And it was his keynote that would influence her entire professional working life to date. Purcell explains, "We're a small school in Limerick, and Kevin Roberts comes in as Global CEO. I vividly remember thinking, I want to work for that guy." Soon after, Purcell is applying to Saatchi & Saatchi London but doesn’t get in. Yet, undeterred, she sets sail to Australia, starting a Master's in Consumer Behaviour at UNSW.

Looking back she shares, "Saatchi had this internship opportunity at the time, which they call the Saatchi Scout Program. I applied for that and got the job in June." Finding "a way to hustle", Purcell completed her Masters whilst juggling her internship, making it work through hard graft - a quality inherited from her parents that would put her in good stead for the things ahead. "I grew up in a house where both my parents were self-employed. And even though I have no real desire to be self-employed, I have a real work ethic from my mum and dad, who are incredibly hard-working people." She says, "If something is important to you, you’ll find a way to be incredibly efficient, incredibly resourceful." Getting into Saatchi taught Purcell a valuable lesson, "No matter the complexities, pressures, and demands, if it's crucial to you, you'll find a way to make it work."

In a sequence of events mirroring the early days of Vogue, whilst at Saatchi, Purcell met Mary Mills. "She was a group strategy director Saatchi Sydney. And we were working  together and I think she saw something in me." When Mills was moved to the New York office she took Purcell along too. Purcell was now part of the New York Ad scene.  "I was super junior!" She recalls, "Arriving in New York I had this insecurity that somehow I was too young." As a true mentor, Mills was quick to snuff out Purcell’s self-doubt, telling her, "Don't worry about it, you're brilliant. You've got it. You'll be great, and you will navigate whatever is in front of you. Don't focus on age; just focus on your output." Of that advice, Purcell says, "That's a fantastic lesson to give to a baby planner, who's insecure, and just figuring it all out."

Purcell still speaks with Mills today, and we are curious about other facets of her early stages of growth. "From my hometown of little Waterford to Sydney and then this incremental jump to New York, I was trying to navigate this new city life, and business environment, whilst realising - New York is the epicentre." She adds, "But the reality is, there is a tiny community of planners that are thoughtful, caring, and supportive. And they are exceptionally good at helping and supporting one another. Someone will always point you in a direction and help you see the sharper edges of your thinking."

Although Purcell now stands as Chief Growth Officer of DDB North America, she is by no means detached from the micro-mechanisms of agency life. "I think planners increasingly feel just as responsible for the creative as the creatives. They know their job is not to write great briefs but to get to great work." She adds, "Good planners today are sitting down and sharing what they are thinking. From day one, they're co-writing the brief. And then they're co-writing the work. There is a point of transition, but even when the emphasis shifts, you're never not responsible."

New Business, Account Management & Pitching

Purcell highlights her time at Grey and winning the Pringles account. Pringles had just been sold and was now a Kellogg’s brand. They already had an 80-year relationship with Leo Burnett. Grey had no relationship with Kellogg's and Purcell explains that "it was essentially seen as a foregone conclusion that Pringles was going to be awarded to Leo Burnett. But they were gracious enough to say, Yeah, cool, okay, we'll take an hour of your time." It took a special effort from the team to pull their case together, and Purcell reminisces, "This was an exceptional team, the pitch team and the team working on Pringles were some of the most formative colleagues I had the fortune of working with."  

Leo Burnett did not take Grey as a severe threat. Purcell and the team knew they "had nothing to lose except the business, so we've got everything to lose," as Purcell puts it. Howard Roberts, Purcell's boss at the time, told the team, "We need to show everyone the relationship people have with Pringles." Purcell wasn’t convinced, saying, "It's a potato chip! This isn't a brand's role in your life that you can unpack." But Roberts was adamant, "People have a relationship; please go and find it. Your job here is to bring it to life."

Roberts' admonition culminated in an around-the-world investigation, including doing classic ethnography around Pringles in Brazil. Purcell recalls finding that Pringles are "something that you play with, interact with. You share it - you do so much more than just eat it." Purcell says nostalgically, "We went to great lengths to reveal something right in front of the client's nose. Something special and meaningful about their brand and the relationship that consumers have with their brand that ultimately is the thing that drives loyalty - something they may not recognise."

Loyalty drives preference, and Purcell explains, "It allows you to have this mental availability in your head when you've got this sea of choice at the store." She continues, "Something that brands have done through their communications and packaging will allow them to rise above all the other choices and be put in the basket." It is the accumulation of the 1000 interactions you have. Purcell clarifies, "Whether it's a social campaign that you see, something that you hear through word of mouth, but ultimately, the totality of them gives you that mental availability and the preference to choose." The Pringles account is still looked after by Grey to this day.

In-House Agencies vs External and  When to Say ‘No’

At this point, it seems logical to address the in-house vs external agency question. And we are beyond blown away by the sharp, visceral - almost instinctive aptitude Purcell holds. And in an ecosystem of more brands taking creative in-house, we're seeing the benefit of tapping into an agency powerhouse, and we want to know what Purcell thinks. "Our role in the industry is to provide objectivity and clarity. To be the voice that, potentially is not the voice of dissent but the voice of truth." Although clients often love people who have worked on their account for years, she feels "There's a value to fresh-thinking and perspective." Purcell states, "No in-house creative agency can bring that level of perspectiveness and impartiality. Internally, agendas and things are going on that ultimately inform where you place your bets. And the agency's job is ultimately to do brilliant work like creative solutions to business problems. That's our job."

"Our role in the industry is to provide objectivity and clarity."

This being the start of Purcell’s second year as chief growth officer, she opens up about opportunities they haven’t embraced since she started. “We walk away from opportunities in categories that we don't feel passionate about and which are not a priority. We don't want to put our team members in a position where they have to try to negotiate with themselves or their teams." Purcell dives deeper saying, "The time to walk away from an opportunity is when you have an existing client that puts the business up for pitch. You can decide I don't want to participate in that pitch anymore."

Incumbent Reviews and Chemistry Sessions

The time and energy surrounding incumbent reviews can be draining, to say the least. And in Purcell’s view, “If that client-agency relationship is not salvageable, you have the opportunity to graciously write the narrative yourself."

She explains, "My mom has this lovely saying that red flags don't turn green. And it simply means that you can tell, for many months, potentially years, if a client will treat you in a certain way. They will have given you signals. So, if you're not treated as a partner from the outset you probably know and feel that." She explains, "Whatever aspect of the business that you're hired for - if you try to play that role, but they don't see you as such, and they see you as a vendor (even the language they use about you is kind of vendor-like) in many ways, they've told you."

Purcell reminds us of the expression: "If someone tells you who they are, believe them." She advises, "Treat the pitch process as a means of interviewing them. The chemistry check or tissue session - treat it as an elimination round. If the chemistry isn't right, if it doesn't feel like we're going to be set up for the kind of dynamic, the kind of relationship and ultimately the kind of work that we all want to work on and be proud of - that's your sign."

Biting the bullet on a bad chemistry session is no mean feat. Purcell gives solid food for thought though suggesting, "If you are going to have to go above and beyond and put all your time and your energy and your shower thoughts towards this product, it better be worth it. Because it's a beautiful brain, it's a beautiful mind. Those 7PMs, Friday night or early Saturday morning calls or texts with your team…it's got to go towards something that you and the client equally care about."

Leadership and Motivation

Over the past two decades, Purcell has worked on thousands of pitches. And now she's tasked with growing DDB North America. Her reaction to this invitation? "All of them? Do you want me to grow all of them? Okay. Any order of preference? Got it."

Her role started as a vast opportunity - and pretty fast. The British-born CEO of DDB North America - Purcell's boss, Justin Thomas Copeland, is, in her words, "a brilliant, brilliant mind." And, like Mills, she says, Copeland "just had this vision for me."

He found Purcell's seat of motivation without her having to tell him, "He said - you can do this. Trust me; you've got it, go! And then I'll nudge you if you're going off course, I'll nudge you back and ensure you get where you're going." This impeccable example of leadership is the perfect fuel for Purcell. "People have different motivations. I never want to have to prove somebody wrong, I only ever want to have to prove somebody right." Purcell will over deliver for someone who believes in her ability to do amazing things. She promises in return, "I will show you every day why hiring me was the best thing you've ever done.”

Copeland has complete confidence in Purcell, and we're told he "gives everyone a long rope to go and run off with," encouraging people to come back to him if and when they need help. He knows how to motivate people and it's a torch that Purcell has also taken upon herself to keep alight. Copeland's mantra to Purcell was, "Don't focus so much on growing your team, focus on making everyone believe that new business is their business." Purcell is convinced, "400-500 people; they are all on Team New Business. And everyone's got an idea - 'You know what I would do if I were in charge of San Pellegrino?' Or - ‘You know what I would do if I spoke to Philadelphia cream cheese?' All it takes is a little bit of unconstrained brainpower and a proactive, resourceful and creative team."

Speaking Up and the Employee's Market

Any new business director should feel comfortable raising an idea with the brand strategist or the planners. Purcell agrees, "The truth is ideas can come from anywhere. It may not be the final idea, but it's the beginning of an idea. And an idea just needs to be allowed to grow, letting it become better and better, not holding it tight and potentially shrinking it but being receptive. Before you know it, you bring an idea to a client."

Purcell knows she has a unique vantage point with her experience as a planner, so she admits, "It does require me to teach that culture. Not everyone has the confidence of just being able to speak up. And so, while I can speak for myself knowing that that's true, I think we as leaders have to be reminding the team, tell me what's on your mind and speak up. And if talent doesn't feel valued, they'll go somewhere they do. It's an employee's market."

"Any new business director should feel comfortable raising an idea with the brand strategist or the planners. Purcell agrees, "The truth is ideas can come from anywhere. It may not be the final idea, but it's the beginning of an idea."

Every agency has a set of core values. DDB sees theirs as the four freedoms. Purcell explains them as, "Freedom from fear, Freedom to fail, Freedom from chaos and Freedom to be. And we hold them sacred." She clarifies, "Freedom to fail is about showing up." She says, "Fail fast, fail often, but know that the agency will trust you. If you come with the right intentions and it doesn't work out, that's fine."

Showing the essence of good leadership, Purcell expands, "We had this thing called favourite Friday fails, where Justin [Copeland] would just be like, okay, ‘what did you do wrong this week, and what can we learn?’ And if the leaders are starting with that, you start to see and hear them discuss, ‘here's what I didn't do right,’ or ‘here's the thing that I wished I had done differently.’ And so every time we learn."

How is your agency stacking up in helping each employee know they have a safe space to speak up and share an idea? Do you have a definitive set of values and direction for your agency, and does everyone on the team know and celebrate them?  

Fixing the Pitch Process and Staying Two Steps Ahead

What would Purcell fix in the industry if she could? "I would fix so much. In no particular order, I think we should all go into three-year minimum client-agency relationships." Purcell explains, "There's comfort in knowing that we're going to build people into the team structure with confidence that it's not going to be in review in a year." She illustrates, "Like a relationship with a partner. The openness of commitment from day one."

Purcell continues, "I think setting some parameters of time when you're putting something up for pitch is really smart. Treating chemistry checks as elimination rounds is definitely something that all agencies should do. And it should be seen through the eyes of the client that that's what we're doing. Because often the industry treats the chemistry session in the light of clients evaluating us for chemistry. Sometimes in virtual pitches, they'll have cameras off, when we're as much evaluating whether we want to dance with you. We're expecting you to show up as your most fabulous self in the way that we are."

It's hard to believe that Purcell and her team plan, prep, and rehearse, blank-screen ready. "When a client behaves like this at the pitch, it shows that they're not invested in you as an agency team. It's a huge red flag." But what about those who are invested? Purcell advises, "Be a meeting ahead. Chemistry session? Prep a tissue session. Client expecting a script? Show them a film - whatever the expectation is, go one step further."

Purcell relates to us a briefing from a few days before our interview. It was a national month in the client's industry, and the client hadn't done anything with it yet. She says, “We're all sitting there thinking, you missed a beat!" Purcell and the team had a Q&A session on Friday. Two days later they reviewed questions to the brief and left a few minutes at the end of the hour to show them their creative ideas. Purcell says, "They were like, it's only been 48 hours since we briefed you." She says that the client saw evidence that "we will be fast; we'll be nimble; we will be precious." Straightaway, without a doubt, this had put Purcell and her team two steps ahead of every other agency.

Investing in New Business Wisely, Work-Life Balance and Mentorship

Inspired by the resilient agility of the DDB North America leadership, we’re curious about their approach to new business. "We are pretty scrappy; we're pretty resourceful. We don't have a tech stack in the marketing sense of the word. Everything is up-to-date and shareable so that everyone can work on it. We're not often working in an automated way; I would rather put that energy towards a proactive piece of thought leadership. I believe that would get a greater return."

Purcell is on the pulse, and her open-handed approach to new business heartens us. "My approach to KPIs is value and culture-oriented first." She shares that Copeland has "designed the KPIs to be people, product, profit, looking at things like Is the work future forward? Is the work moving in the direction that we want it to be? Is the work varied?" Commenting on the profit side, Purcell says that it's not a new business or an organic growth target. She says, "It's like the quality and the health of your client's relationships. Are you managing your team? Are you managing your business profitably in a healthy way? Is everyone clocking in 70 hours a week? Because if that's the case, then that's probably not the healthiest way to be running that team."

Purcell continues, "It's a simple structure where we write specific people-based KPIs. What does it look like for your team to grow? What does it look like for you to make relationships within Omnicom? I take my KPIs and share them with my team and say, right, this is what I have to accomplish. Essentially, this is what we have to accomplish because I will never accomplish it without us. And so we do it together. And then we write specific KPIs based on a person's areas of growth, or personal passion points." Purcell explains that a colleague’s passion points could look like wanting to get more strategic, getting closer to production and she’s proactive about mapping that out for them and making it happen.  

From a personal developmental point of view, Purcell encourages her team to, in her words, know "where they need to sort of plot to get promoted, whenever that cycle is." But it's not about ticking boxes for Purcell and moving people up the ladder based on time served and she says, "It's not just because you've been here a year, you're on a promotion track, but rather, developmentally, professionally, what's the next phase of all kinds of growth in your career."

It's been said that it's easier to ship recipes than biscuits. When Purcell looks back at the people who have most impacted her, "It's because they were teachers," she advises. "And it's because they were just incredibly generous with their knowledge sharing." She says, "Teach and train, teach and train. Our job is to get anything that's wise and tell everyone as much and as fast as possible. Before you know it, you have this army of brilliant, and likely, loyal people." Purcell loves the people who have helped her along with her career, "They stick out, but they stick around. Wherever we go, we're going together."

In Reichheld's Winning on Purpose: The Unbeatable Strategy of Loving Customers, featured in Harvard Business Review, he demonstrates that the primary purpose of a business should be to enrich the lives of its customers. Why? He states, "Because when customers feel this love, they come back for more." We ask Purcell for her perspective on this within adland. She says, "Purpose is not your profit; your purpose and profits are different. And it's interesting when you look at agencies that often haven't articulated their purpose. They've done it for their clients but haven't articulated a purpose for themselves." Highlighting the key issue with this, Purcell says, "Our job is to help make our clients brilliant, unique, distinctive, and different. And bring memorable assets, creating those memory structures for our clients. But yet, for ourselves, we think we understand what makes us unique. But as an industry, have we all spent the time to understand what that collective purpose is?"

DDB believe in unexpected work. Purcell explains, "We know that unexpected creativity will attract people and make them stop and pay attention. Bernbach said - 'Creativity is the strongest, is the most powerful force in business,’ and that's a belief underpinning DDB since day one."

The four freedoms Purcell mentioned earlier bolster and unify the culture of DDB. Purcell agrees, "Everyone recognises where they fit in and why they come to work at DDB. Someone will be loyal to an agency when you create a truly incredible culture, recognising what makes the talent and your team special and doing everything you can to nurture it." Purcell says, "I'll stay at DDB because of leaders like Copeland."

All Said and Done

Patterson, Roberts, Mills and Copeland have a massive role in inspiring and motivating Purcell to become who she is today. Still, it's another personal passion driving the next stage of her personal development. "Psychology interests me," she says. And if she wasn't a Chief Growth Officer, she "might go away and be a psychologist." But she revels in the times she can "bring psychology into the job." Aside from spending time reading psychology and immersing herself in that space, Purcell also attends workshops and programs. She admits to enjoying the "nerdy side of behavioural psychology, social psychology and social science." She is a self-proclaimed fan of the works of Alain de Botton, Brene Brown and Esther Perel, deeming her work "phenomenal". Of personal development, Purcell says, "By learning about yourself, your motivations, your drivers and things that scratch your itches; when you know yourself, then you're a much better boss, you're a much better team member."

Purcell loves the overlap of creativity and psychology, understanding that "from a work perspective, it's our job to stay connected to the industry." Aside from reading the trades to keeping an eye on who's winning, Purcell's biggest go-to source for inspiration are long-form podcasts,  "I think they allow for discussion, depth and detail - it's just how my brain ingests information." She says, introducing us to Fergus O'Carroll, of the ON Strategy, "He'll take a brand, and deconstruct an entire campaign, going in deep. He's done hours worth of planning and prep for a discussion with the planner about the campaign. Sometimes, he'll bring in either the client or the creative for the discussion. He gives you a real sense of what it takes to get that campaign made, versus a superficial analysis."

Every month we talk with exceptionally talented people from brands and agencies all over the world. All are extremely positive and most want to stay in touch as they love what we’re doing with THE GOODS. But some, some make an impact on you that you can’t quite put your finger on. An impact that makes you want to grab Monday morning with both hands and make a start on your most challenging task. Elaine Purcell is one of these people.

As the economic situation unfolds, in the coming months, there is no doubt that as Chief Growth Officer of DDB North America, Purcell will face her fair share of challenging decisions and dilemmas, but we’re excited to see both how she leads and what she accomplishes alongside Copeland.

Strategic and brave, Purcell is one of those people that are not only brilliant at what they do but are kind, conscientious and have stayed true to themselves. She’s not scared of empowering people and wants to help others advance in their careers, moving on to their next stages of personal development. We only hope this article captured the essence of her brilliance as much as we experienced it.  

Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief