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Agency Profile: Ogilvy Durham

Posted on January 21, 2008 and read 4,736 times

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Last summer, I had the pleasure of attending the VCU Adcenter’s Advanced Management Training Program for Creative Directors. I won’t go into much detail about that experience, since I’ve already blogged about it extensively, but one of the coolest things about being there is that I got meet creative directors and senior creatives from all over North America. And not just from big cities or ad agency hot spots either, but smaller cities off the beaten path, all with the passion and desire to do wonderful work. Meeting these people really got me thinking: what are the agencies like in these smaller markets?

Fast-forward several weeks, and after an amusing delay at US Customs and Immigration, I’m arriving in Durham, NC. Durham is most famously known as the home of research and basketball powerhouse Duke University (named after local tobacco industrialist Washington Duke). It is far less well known as the home of Ogilvy Durham, a smaller office of the immense Ogilvy network, and one of the agencies represented at the VCU Adcenter event. I’m met at the airport by ACD Noah Rosenberg, and we drive the tree-lined highway into the city.

Ogilvy Durham is located in the Brightleaf district of downtown Durham. The area is undergoing a bit of an artistic transformation, of which Ogilvy has become part. “We just moved into this location last December,” says Noah. “It’s a better building, as far as fostering creativity. There are plenty of fantastic places to eat and wander around nearby. Our old place really sucked. It was in a technical office park, with typical low ceilings, depressing grey office paintjobs, and nothing but parking lots within walking distance. Besides, we had a staff of 22 at the time and it was getting way too small.”

The new place, a very spacious, multi-level loft-like building, has plenty of room to house their staff, which in that short span of time has grown to about 55 people, with nearly half of them in the creative department. “This new office is very inspiring to be in, with lots of room to be ourselves and to grow, both physically and creatively.”

Ogilvy Durham wasn’t always this keen on creative growth. Like many small outposts of big multinationals, Ogilvy Durham seemed to exist solely to serve the whims of the head office. “Prior to Noah and I arriving here a little more than two years ago, there wasn’t even an acting creative director here,” recalls Jeff Dahlberg, Senior Partner and Creative Director of Ogilvy Durham. “All of the creative directors were in New York, and New York would create templates and style guides for the guys in Durham to follow.”

Nowadays, Ogilvy Durham has more of a creative partnership with the New York office. “Rather than following guidelines to which we have no input, we now get to fully participate in a number of their accounts, such as IBM, Lenovo and Kodak,” says Noah. “We’re given a lot of opportunities to do really interesting and cool things with these major brands. At some point, however, you can’t be just a kid brother to another agency; you have to be able to do your own thing. Besides, there’s a personal need to be relevant not only within the Ogilvy network but also within our own community.”

“Fortunately it is because of our relationship with the Ogilvy network that we have the ability to be relevant right here in North Carolina,” Noah continues. “Doing great work for the New York clients ensures that our agency is financially stable, which allows us to ask ‘what kind of work does each of us really want to do?’ What smaller scale, local projects do we have in mind? What fantastic creative opportunities lie right here in Durham that we can get excited about and not have to worry about paying the light bill?”

To this end, the crew at Ogilvy Durham try to live each day according to the popular adage ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ “Have you ever had a favorite store or restaurant or whatever, a place that just does things and sees things differently, and you think ‘I wish this place never closes, what could I do to contribute?’” asks Noah. “These are the types of businesses we love to work with, businesses run by people who are just as enthusiastic about creativity as we are.” Now before you get visions of dogwalkers and joy-pops dancing in your head, Noah continues: “And I don’t mean typical tattoo parlors or condom shops, where the ad might be conceived and the award show submission filled out before the business is even approached. I’m talking about businesses that you really and truly want to help succeed and flourish measurably.”

So does that mean Ogilvy Durham eschews the award shows? Not necessarily. “I don’t know if winning awards really helps agencies win new business, but definitely helps to improve the quality of creative talent,” says Jeff. “Young creatives are especially excited at the opportunity to do great work, be awarded for it and build their portfolios. So you’ll never hear us telling people ‘oh, awards aren’t important.’ We encourage award-winning work from all of our staff.”


“There are a number of creatives who don’t necessarily want to live the whole Manhattan lifestyle. They don’t want to work so hard and only have a cramped studio apartment that they share with other people to show for it.”

So what types of creatives find themselves in a skyscraper-less place like Durham? “There really aren’t many intermediate level people here at Ogilvy, it’s mainly juniors and seniors,” says Noah. “Most of the seniors come from big-city ad agencies, and have decided that being in a place like Ogilvy Durham allows for a better work-life balance, and the ability to raise a family. There are a number of creatives who don’t necessarily want to live the whole Manhattan lifestyle. They don’t want to work so hard and only have a cramped studio apartment that they share with other people to show for it. We offer a different lifestyle here, both at Ogilvy and in Durham in general, and the people who are seeking that have that understanding in their lives where they say ‘I’m not just going to do what other people think I need to do in my career. I’m not going to do what will impress the people I went to school with, I want to do what’s best for me.’”

And the juniors? what draws them to Ogilvy Durham? After all, aren’t they the ones lured by the shiny steel of the big city? “When I was in school I thought of working at some big agency in New York or California,” says Lindsay Wilson, copywriter and recent VCU Adcenter grad. “But after doing internships at some big agencies and small agencies, I found it to be really great here: a big agency name, but it’s a small agency. And it’s fabulous to be a part of something that was growing.” Her AD partner Caitlin Douglas agrees. “Despite growing up just outside of Boston, I think I would’ve been overwhelmed to start my career in a big city like New York, Chicago or Boston. And you really can’t complain about the weather here down south!”

“Being flexible is what makes even the roughest workday tolerable.”

“What’s great about here is that we’ve found a way to accommodate both types of people,” adds Noah. “If you’re the 9–5 go home to your family and come in tomorrow kind of person, that’s fine. If you’re the type who is really driven and you enjoy working well into the evening, that’s fine too. We’re not one or the other here.”

So with both types of people equally at home at Ogilvy Durham, it’s safe to assume that there isn’t any rigid daily schedule. “I’m really flexible when it comes to people’s hours,” says Jeff. “If you’re gonna be in the office later that 10:30 AM, I’d love a phone call just in case anyone is looking for you, but as long as the work gets done and is done well, it doesn’t really bother me. Being flexible is what makes even the roughest workday tolerable.”

As far as team structure goes, Ogilvy Durham isn’t fond of keeping teams rigid. “it’s pretty organic, and we mix people up all the time as different projects reflect different individual skills,” explains Jeff. “This leads to designers working with art directors, or writers working with designers. Of course, some people end up working together fairly often, but they still switch it up on other assignments. I believe it provides a lot of stimulation for the work environment; to be able to work directly with all sorts of different personalities.”

Noah concurs: “I find when teams stay the same, the teams start to isolate themselves from the rest of the agency. For instance ‘Tom’ and ‘Steve’ are a team, and they’re always at the coffee shop or out to lunch together and don’t bother with the rest. By mixing it up, we bring everybody closer together. That said, we like to give people ownership of their projects and accounts. We wouldn’t have one team do one ad in a campaign, and another team do another part of the same campaign.”

So what does the Ogilvy Durham gang do for fun and inspiration? “Honestly, moving into this new space was one of the most invigorating things for the whole office,” says Noah. “It was like a big present to everybody. But even that excitement doesn’t last forever, so we’ve had things like an ongoing ping-pong tournament, big dinner parties…”

“Frosty Fridays happy hours too,” Jeff is quick to add with a laugh. “And we also got ourselves a nice big barbecue for the deck.” (Note to readers: Ogilvy Durham has a beautiful, expansive patio/deck, perfect to sit out with your notepad and work or to enjoy a cold beer or four… um, so I’ve been told.)

“While we plan to have more agency wide events, we try to not keep them regulated,” continues Noah. “In big city offices, life can be very hectic and stressful, so it’s often necessary to facilitate a polar opposite to get everyone to relax. But here, we’re very laid back, so people have time for their own diversions.”

A big thanks to Noah, Jeff and the rest of Ogilvy Durham for inviting all of us inside!


Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer/SBN2
ihaveanidea






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