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."
Above all, Paterson says, McGuinness excels at pitches — making clients like him and the ideas. It has helped him win business throughout his career. But the seeds of success were planted early, according to Ted Sabarese, who has been friends with McGuinness since their high school days at Christian Brothers Academy, an all-boys Catholic school in New Jersey.
Sabarese spent his summers working as a lifeguard and living with his classmate on the Jersey Shore, and their adolescent friendship has endured — and only slightly matured — over three decades.
"What he is amazing at, and has been since he was a kid, is self-promotion," said Sabarese, 44, a photographer and an advertising veteran who works as digital creative director at New York-based Chobani yogurt. "From promoting himself to get a really cool girlfriend when we were 15, to being able to be where he is today, I think he does an excellent job at that."
McGuinness, who has three older sisters, was born in northwest suburban Buffalo Grove, where his father, a market research executive, relocated the family from New York for a job opportunity. Within a few years, work took them back to the Big Apple — or at least a boat ride away. The family settled in Monmouth Beach, N.J., a quaint seaside town on the northern reaches of the Jersey Shore.
It was an idyllic childhood, said McGuinness, who spent many summers as a lifeguard on a public beach near his home. His schooling, however, was a little more rigorous. Beginning in his freshman year, he was shipped off daily to Christian Brothers, a prep school about 10 miles inland, in Lincroft, N.J., where the motto was, "bring us your boys and we will return to you men." The process included meting out correction at the hands of one particularly intimidating brother, who ended up working closely with McGuinness in his role as disciplinarian.
"I was small, so my defense was the mouth and wit and banter," McGuinness said. "So I got in trouble all the time."
Punishments could be a well-placed smack or lengthy stays in detention, and McGuinness endured more than his share of both.
One beautiful fall day, "the foliage was changing, and he brought me in to detention, and he said, 'You're going to be here, the leaves are going to fall, the snow is going to come, the snow is going to melt, the leaves are going to come back and you're still going to be in detention,'" McGuinness said. "I don't think it was that long, but I was there for a long time."
He earned the admiration of his classmates by standing up to authority with his good humor intact.
"Pete was a joker. He was a bit of a wiseass, liked to stir up trouble and also wasn't scared" of the brother, Sabarese said. "I'm not sure why, because everyone really was."
After high school, McGuinness didn't stray far from the water, attending Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., where he pursued his love of sailing and beaches, along with a degree in marketing and advertising. Still working as a lifeguard during summers as an underclassman, he landed an internship with McCann Erickson after his junior year. He spent two summers there as an intern in accounting.
After graduating in 1991, McGuinness met with a "Nurse Ratched-type" in human resources, who told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't have the right stuff to be in account management. Instead, she steered him toward a $17,000-a-year job in local broadcast media buying. He took the gig, shared the top floor of a five-story Manhattan walk-up with three roommates and planned for a brighter future. Part of the plan was securing a spot in McCann's management training program, where he and a team created and pitched a campaign, winning an internal competition. Soon after that, McGuinness found his way out of media buying and into account management.
The move may also have been precipitated by an early and fairly high-profile misstep. He was tasked with placing the buys for the launch of "Chaplin," a biopic of Charlie Chaplin's life starring Robert Downey Jr. The movie opened in January 1993, apparently without some key local advertising, thanks to an oversight by McGuinness. Whether it was the inadvertently low-profile opening or generally tepid reviews, the $31 million movie grossed less than $10 million at the box office, according to IMDb, the online entertainment database.
"I think he just forgot to do it," Sabarese said. "He caught a lot of flak for that from his friends."
McGuinness would neither confirm nor deny the anecdote, saying it was a long time ago and adding that the movie wasn't very good anyway.
Account management proved to be a fast track for McGuinness. Starting as an assistant account executive working on AT&T, he was promoted to AE in six months — one year ahead of schedule.
"So in my wiseguy fashion, I send a little note down to HR saying he who wasn't suitable just got promoted in a third of the time," McGuinness said.
The promotions continued to come, and with each one, McGuinness fired off another note to his nemesis. By the time he was elevated to vice president at age 25, she was already gone.
"I was the youngest vice president in McCann," McGuinness said. "I went to go send her the note, but she got fired."
The competitive fires still burn brightly for McGuinness at DDB Chicago, an agency known for big ideas and big accounts, with its top three clients, McDonald's, State Farm and Capitol One, spending more than $2 billion on advertising last year, according to Kantar. State Farm Insurance, a longtime DDB Chicago client, left for Draftfcb in 2010 but returned in 2011 after a new pitch. The Bloomington, Ill.-based company spent $632 million on measured media last year, according to Kantar, with DDB's "Get to a Better State" campaign running across multiple platforms.
The well-received creative and the execution strategy have been successful, said Rand Harbert, State Farm's chief marketing officer, who credits DDB's new CEO for getting both agency and client to a better state.
"He is a wonderful balance between the creative process and strategic direction," Harbert said. "Sometimes you tend to get one or the other."
Keeping McDonald's happy will no doubt be a challenge and a priority going forward. Bill Cimino, who served as global creative director on McDonald's, left DDB in October to become chief creative officer at Y&R Chicago. DDB expects to name a replacement by mid-May; Paterson has handled the account in the interim. The pressure may be on the incoming creative director, with McDonald's reporting flat first-quarter earnings and the first U.S. same-store sales decline in 10 years.
McGuinness remains confident in the relationship.
"They've always been demanding and fair, and we've always delivered, and we continue to deliver," he said. "I think the relationship is as strong as it's ever been."
McGuinness has hired some 125 new people since arriving at DDB, which with turnover now stands at about 375 employees. One of those recruits was Kottmann, 45, who left a position with Ogilvy New York after just three months to follow his friend and former colleague to Chicago. Having worked with McGuinness for many years, Kottmann was confident that McGuinness had the right stuff to lead DDB forward and silence the naysayers.
"I knew if he went, that he was going to work that magic to make more happen and get things done and not let process get in the way — just be himself," Kottmann said.
Peter McGuinness, president & CEO, DDB Chicago
Style: Casual and impeccably tousled, with a perpetual two-day growth. "I've never seen him cleanshaven, and it never grows," said Ewan Paterson, DDB's chief creative officer. "Maybe it's actually just stopped there."
Travel: Has been to more than 50 countries and flown more than 7 million miles, mostly for work. Favorite destinations include Italy, France, St. Barts, the Outer Banks, N.C., and Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Sailing: Doesn't own a sailboat but charters out of ports from Australia to Belmont Harbor. Once took landlubber Paterson and his family on a three-day sail from Sag Harbor, N.Y., to Newport, R.I. "It was just magical — blue skies all the way, and we woke up three mornings on a boat having breakfast," Paterson said.
Pro bono work: Creating advertising for the Ad Council's GED campaign and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's anti-obesity campaign.
Family: Met his wife, Annette, while working at McCann. She's chief image officer for New York-based Chobani yogurt, a client he won at Gotham. They have a 3-year-old son, 10-year-old daughter and Oliver, their prized Italian hunting dog.
Chicago vs. New York: Misses the electricity of New York but says his quality of life is "exponentially better" in Chicago.