Media Agency of the Year: PHD | Adweek
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Agency of the Year: PHD

A renewed focus on strategic planning and big wins like Unilever have PHD stepping out of the shadow of its rivals

Photos: Andrew Eccles

When PHD pitched Unilever’s media business last year in a highly competitive review, the agency’s worldwide chief Mike Cooper hoped his company would win a couple of the marketer’s big global brands.

The Omnicom Media Group agency managed to surpass Cooper’s wildest dreams, landing 90 percent of Unilever’s plum global communications planning assignments for 16 megabrands and besting other shops including Initiative, MPG, Naked, VivaKi and incumbent Mindshare.

If it was an unexpected prize to even those within the walls of PHD, it also was public validation of the agency’s founding philosophy in a year in which it proved a serious contender for mammoth global assignments. And PHD’s rivals might not have seen it coming. After all, PHD’s business model has always been driven more by planning than leveraging scale.

“Accounts like Unilever are a big transformational milestone for PHD,” says Omnicom Media Group chief Daryl Simm. “Over time, PHD has been seen as our ‘other’ media company. No longer. It is one of our media networks.”

Simm adds, “PHD has its roots in strategic thinking, planning and a deep understanding of brands as a starting point. They have a strong belief in the heavy lifting of media strategy and planning.”

Case in point: The agency recently launched Source, a Web-hosted planning system that acts as a live collaboration tool for thousands of PHD employees using game mechanics. In development for nearly two years under the direction of Mark Holden, worldwide strategy and planning director, Source was a major factor in the win of Unilever’s global communications planning.

“The appointment was the result of a very rigorous process in which we evaluated the full proposition that the agencies offered us, including tools, talent, innovation, structure and other aspects,” says Luis Di Como, Unilever svp, global media. “PHD’s full proposition was excellent, and we are looking forward to equally outstanding results.”

If the Unilever assignment showed what PHD could do on a global stage, the agency’s regional operations performed in their own right, contributing to a 13 percent gain in global revenue to $775 million for 2012.

In the U.S., the agency revamped its top ranks, tapping Monica Karo, former president of integrated accounts at corporate sibling OMD, as CEO. (OMD was Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year last year.) Steve Williams, CEO of OMD U.K., was named president of PHD, New York, while Craig Atkinson, president, chief digital officer of PHD U.S., added additional responsibility as COO. Since those changes were implemented last May, PHD’s U.S. operation has won each of its last five pitches, including The Economist, Swatch Group and Sleep Number.

“For a number of reasons, PHD came out on top,” says Mike Bills, CMO at Select Comfort Corp., the manufacturer of Sleep Number beds. “There was Monica’s presence and participation along with some of her best and brightest on her senior team. There was the cohesiveness of their offer, how integrated it was. There was their strategy, their thoughtfulness and their understanding of our business. They came to the table with a deep understanding of who we were, what we did well and what was unique about our brand proposition.”

In Europe, where the media business has struggled with stagnation or declines amid the Eurozone crisis, PHD last year enjoyed 33 percent growth, picking up global and regional assignments like Sony mobile, Bentley and Unilever. After a review, the agency retained its Cadbury business in the U.K. and Ireland even as Aegis won the bulk of parent Mondelez’s Western European business. PHD’s Asia Pacific region kicked off 2012 by winning the media assignment for ANZ Bank in Asia following a five-month pitch, and closed the year with 102 new assignments.

In Latin America, the agency won dairy producer SanCor Bebé and spirits distributor Cepas, as well as Applebee’s in Puerto Rico. At Cannes, PHD’s Peru office took home a Gold Lion for its work on the Peruvian sports magazine El Bocón.

Over the last year, PHD’s work has generated significant results for its clients across the globe. In Peru, the media are known for their sensationalist coverage of tragedies. So right after a violent event at a soccer game, PHD had El Bocón eliminate all coverage of soccer to drive home the message that violence could well make soccer disappear. It was an example of owned media generating national earned media through extensive coverage (or in this case, noncoverage). A whopping 150,000 copies of El Bocón sold out immediately.

Meanwhile, for McCain Foods in the U.K., PHD had to convince Brits that a new frozen baked potato was as good as the real thing. The campaign last winter, which earned a Silver Lion at Cannes, used 3-D bus shelters where freezing commuters could warm their hands, catch a whiff of oven-baked spuds and get a coupon after the push of a button. Sales were 30 percent above forecast while McCain achieved an 8.5 percent share of market just eight weeks after launch.

In another challenge, PHD won a Bronze Lion for Aquafresh’s new toothpaste for children. To launch the product, the agency introduced characters dubbed “the Nurdles,” who appeared on television every evening at 7:58 in a 90-second video airing in a kids program. Moms took to Facebook to chat about the product. The result: Aquafresh snagged a 5.2 percent share of the kids toothpaste market.

PHD’s other Bronze Lion this past year was for Monteith’s, a New Zealand-based cider brand trying to break though an increasingly cluttered category. The company wanted to emphasize its use of fresh fruit as opposed to the concentrated syrup favored by its competitors. PHD had Monteith’s place twigs from apple trees into the packaging. Following subsequent buzz via TV, radio and social media, Monteith’s ran ads “apologizing” for twigs that had mysteriously found their way into the packaging. Following the campaign, 12-packs of Monteith’s sold out while the brand’s cider sales surged 32 percent.

Cannes also proved to be an opportunity for PHD to showcase thought leadership. At a packed session at the festival, PHD unveiled Overthrow, a book it produced with Adam Morgan, founder of U.K. consultancy eatbigfish, detailing 10 case studies of challenger brands. Overthrow was as much a client manifesto as a positioning statement for PHD.

“Our heritage goes back to 1999—we have always been a challenger brand,” says Cooper, the global CEO since ’07. “We launched as a strategic planning-led media agency when everyone else was talking about scale and buying—gorillas with calculators. Our different heritage and culture is very important, a major point of difference. If you don’t have that, you have to artificially create something.”

That culture not only helps PHD win new accounts, it also enables the agency to retain business when there’s a changing of the guard at its clients. “One of the things that makes PHD special and great at what they do is they know that a big part of being a good agency is understanding the core values and goals of the company they work with,” says Pamela Levine, who joined HBO as head of marketing in October 2011, inheriting the relationship with PHD that stretched back to 2009.

“Even before I came in from the film side, they had already done their homework on me, on all the campaigns I had done at 20th Century Fox films,” Levine adds. “They really know we want things that will have an impact and stand out, and find places where we can have a very strong presence.”

Pictured above: Daryl Simm, Chairman and CEO, Omnicom Media Group; Monica Karo, CEO, PHD U.S.; Mike Cooper, CEO, PHD Worldwide; Mark Holden, Worldwide Strategy and Planning Director.

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