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We are very protective of the PHD culture: Mike Cooper

Mike Cooper, PHD

PHD has had an eventful 2013. This is the first complete year that the company has been involved in the communication planning of Unilever. Another large advertiser, GlaxoSmithKline, awarded its communication planning mandate to the agency too. PHD had eight Media Lions to its credit at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2013. The agency also saw some senior level changes –old hands such as Howard Nead quit the agency; Cheuk Chiang moved on to a broader role at Omnicom Media Group APAC and new leaders such as Susanna Tsui (CEO, PHD APAC) made their way to lead the agency’s future. PHD also got itself a new address in India earlier this week.

For PHD’s Global CEO, Mike Cooper, it has been a “really good year”. PHD’s differentiated positioning that has been more focussed on planning and strategy was reiterated in the year with large advertisers showing their trust in the agency. The mandate for the new leaders is not only to keep the PHD culture going but to also build on what their predecessors had achieved for the agency. In this interview with Digital Market Asia’s Noor Fathima Warsia, Mr Cooper speaks on what he thinks of marketers, what it means to work with an advertiser like Unilever, what PHD looks for when it is hiring and what can be expected from the agency in the year ahead…

It has been a busy year for PHD. One of the big things of the year has been the communication planning mandate from Unilever. How has that been as an experience so far?
It has been a really good year for us. The communication planning work that we are doing for Unilever has been amazing. One of the big projects that we have been involved in was Dove Sketches, which helped us win eight Lions at Cannes this year – it is more than double of what we have won in the past. For a relatively new agency like us, this was phenomenal. Most media agencies, much older than PHD, did not even get close to that. Working with a client like Unilever is very important for us. I would argue it is the most sophisticated marketing company in the world. The work Unilever does on detergents, ice creams and other categories is absolutely amazing. Doing comms planning for them required us to improve our game in many ways. Working with Unilever trains and teaches you to work on another level. The interaction we have with them at all levels is very positive. It is a challenging task and it has done a lot of good for us. Of the back of that, to get the vast bulk of communication planning of GSK was another powerful endorsement of our global planning credentials.

The agency’s positioning has always been around planning…
When PHD was launched in 1990, we always tried to be different, tried to be very strategic and planning focussed. For us to be working with some of the biggest advertisers is fantastic. Today we have more communication planning resources than any other agency in the world and that is a great place to be at. We can really build our reputation as thought leaders in media and that is where we are interested in being. The thing about being a thought leader is that you have to stay on top – you cannot be a thought leader on one day and not be there the next.

The agency’s leaders have played an important role in getting you there. But this year has seen quite a few changes in your senior management including Cheuk Chiang taking on a larger mandate of Omnicom Media Group APAC from his PHD role.
Cheuk has been absolutely amazing. He has done incredible things for the network. He has multiplied the business and really put PHD on the map. Five or six years ago, we were not a network. It is really difficult to begin a new company and convince people to work with us. We have never set out with PHD to focus on size. We have focussed on quality and some of our best offices in the world are in APAC – China, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore – these are outstanding operations and I would give Cheuk a very significant portion of the credit of what we have achieved here. When you have someone as outstanding as Cheuk, you have to keep challenging them. If you don’t do that, you lose them. I am realistic enough to know he is not going to stay in the job forever. So I had pushed for him to take on what was my previous role at the agency. Cheuk was a tough act to follow but I think Susanna (Tsui) is going to do even more things with PHD.

It is interesting to see Susanna come from a digital background. Was that deliberate?
We deliberately went after someone who is not from a traditional media agency background. If you hire someone from a traditional media agency, you end up with a traditional media agency. Cheuk came from a creative agency. We have had a lot of success with that approach in the past. But one of the things that was very attractive about Susanna was that she has a very well rounded experience. She has an amazing track record in terms of new business and she was miles ahead of any of the other candidates. She gets it, she is very aggressive and driven. She is world class and you need world class leaders in APAC.

Earlier this year, people like Howard Nead and Mark Heap also quit the agency. As you looked for replacement, what are some of the things you look out for?
Howard was with us for nearly 20 years. I think I understand that he wanted to move on. We have made a hire there that we would be announcing shortly. We are very protective of the PHD culture and one of the things that we look for when we are hiring senior talent is whether they would fit in and whether the chemistry is right. One of the most important criteria is whether we are going to enjoy working with them. In this business, we spend more time with the people we are working with than we do with our family. We have to make sure we enjoy working with them. Chemistry is very underrated in our business. People talk about CPRP (cost per rating point) and coverage but chemistry is very important.

Chemistry is a softer aspect of the industry. Yet when agencies evaluate the performance of their various offices, the focus is more on bottom line and such measures. Is that the right way to evaluate how well an office is performing?
Bottom line is an important factor but not the only thing we look at because it has to be mature, rounded picture to be a good, efficient office that embraces the PHD culture. One of things we are going through at the moment is our three-year planning and a big part of that process is learning why our successful offices do as well as they do, and then applying some of that on the offices that are not doing as well. We don’t measure the success of our offices on new business. We measure them on thought leadership, client loyalty, staff satisfaction or the number of awards they win. We measure all of our offices around the world on all those criteria and we produce a global map in terms of where they are. The objective is not to change leadership but for our offices to learn from each other, use best practices across the world and get everyone up to a certain standard. It is especially important when you have a proposition like ours. Clients are extremely good in analysing an agency, where the agency is good and where it is not. For us, a global client should be able to walk into any of the PHD offices and see the same set of values that they had hired us for in another market – it cannot be a patchy network.

Marketers seem to have settled down. The last recession we heard a spree of global media pitches. And now despite conversations of a slowdown, not so much…
I know there is a tendency to look for trends but I think every advertiser is different. One of the implications of 2008 was that many companies were not able to keep the promises that were made in media reviews and pitches. And we have seen how those relationships lasted. If you encourage people to buy the cheapest possible airtime or make promises that they cannot keep, and if you throw things like thought leadership and chemistry out of the window, it is not going to be an enduring relationship. There has to be a balance in the process. The early days of 2008 recession was a race to the bottom, and I think clients realise now that it is getting the right package or else you can end up with a one dimensional solution.