Mindshare N.A. Gains Momentum

Since he was promoted to CEO of WPP Group’s Mindshare North America six months ago, Phil Cowdell and his team have quietly won about $500 million in new media assignments, including Farmers Insurance ($100 million), Sun Products ($60 million) and just last week, Skyy Spirits, which spends about $10 million on ads annually, according to Nielsen.
And the shop, which had U.S. billings of $8.7 billion and revenue of $350 million last year, is also involved in a handful of ongoing new business pitches with another $500 million in billings at stake.
For an agency that hasn’t won a lot of new business the last couple of years, that’s all good news. But Cowdell says it’s not his top priority. That would be hanging on to existing accounts and making sure that the agency does everything in its power to ensure that clients such as Ford, Sprint and American Express are both “happy and profitable.” That list, of course, also includes Unilever, which is conducting a series of regional reviews including the ongoing one in the U.S., where it spent $640 million on measured media last year.
Indeed, part of the reason Cowdell was promoted in June to the CEO slot, replacing Scott Neslund, was due to management displeasure at the departure of client Bristol-Myers Squibb, where pre-recession annual spending exceeded $400 million, per Nielsen. The client called a review this spring and subsequently awarded the account to Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, which also this year wrested Wrigley ($250 million) from Mindshare, after a consolidation review for the Mars-Wrigley business.
“Our number-one focus is current clients,” Cowdell said last week, in his first sit-down interview since assuming the CEO role at the agency. “I can’t have anyone else walk out the door.” That’s why he’s spent much of his time since June on airplanes visiting customers.
Asked if he’s had to put out many client fires, Cowdell quips, “You shouldn’t stamp out fires. It’s hot, tiring and burns your shoes. Find the bastard with the matches. I’ve found quite a few matchboxes.”
He’s also found issues with the agency’s back-office operational controls and client capabilities. The controls are fixed, he said. As to the offering, digital strategy and data analytics are two areas he’s looking to improve in the near term. More generally, he says, “we lost ourselves a little bit,” noting that a kind of gap emerged between what the shop aspired to and executing fundamentals like “running expert on the media plans and optimizing the plans being reported.”

And don’t get him started on PowerPoint presentations, which he dislikes and which he has, by and large, barred from new business pitches. The ideal pitch, he said, would be “where the client says there is no brief and we’re going to sit in a room for a day and we’ll throw out an issue that we’re struggling with and come up with ways of working through it.” That’s how relationships develop, added the U.K. native, “not by hiding behind the edifice of a PowerPoint presentation.”
Cowdell, 45, has been a Mindshare client leader (for Ford, Unilever and Kimberly-Clark) for most of his 10 years at the agency. Prior to running the Ford business from Detroit starting in 2006, he was a managing partner and the agency’s global head of planning in London. He led and won the estimated $100 million global Intercontinental Hotels pitch earlier this year, before his promotion to North American CEO.
Cowdell brings a client-facing approach to his management style as CEO. And clients seem to like it. “Phil is passionate and has a deep knowledge about his clients’ businesses,” said Simon McPhillips, director of media at Mindshare client Sprint and who has known Cowdell since they worked at MediaVest a dozen years ago. “And that passion hasn’t waned as he has moved up the organization, which is quite rare.”
Betsy O’Rourke, svp, marketing at client Royal Caribbean agreed. He’s an “exceptional leader. I like the fact that he has taken the time to actually get to know his clients and understand their businesses,” she said. “He talks about strategic imperatives for the business,” not just media issues.