Q&A: How One Media Agency Finds a Balance Between Working With Big Brands and Startups

PHD CEO Nathan Brown talks about the little fish

Brown says agencies sometimes need to take risks by working with smaller clients.

Many in marketing want to work at the hottest new company “disrupting” a certain kind of business, be it shaving, pharmacies or even milk.

But most ad agencies don’t have that luxury, especially if they’re owned by parent companies that report, first and foremost, to their investors.

Media network PHD is part of Omnicom, the world’s second-largest holding group. Yet U.S. CEO Nathan Brown, who has led the agency’s U.S. division since 2014, counterintuitively sees it as a “challenger brand” due to a strategy that involves balancing the business of big spenders like Delta Air Lines (and its newest client, HSBC) with that of true startups like MailChimp, Harry’s, Blink Health and Oatly.

Brown spoke with Adweek and explained how PHD has made that dichotomy work in recent years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: When did you make a conscious decision to go after these smaller “startup” accounts?
Nathan Brown: I remember going from one meeting room at Unilever to another with [executives from] Ben & Jerry’s and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve just moved from one planet to a totally different stratosphere.’ They said, ‘We want to be 10 times as large in 12 months.’ There was an entrepreneurial spirit in that room that was desperately needed in the Dove room.

And how did that fit into your plans for PHD?
[We were] growing at a healthy pace, but I think back to the wins we had—Volkswagen, Delta, etc.—and one of the most important was MailChimp, a small email company that is changing the way CRM (and everything else) is being done. This client and the talent it has attracted to the agency have created a wonderful energy. … We’re growing the business 30 percent year on year, and it’s becoming one of our bigger clients.

"We need to constantly act like a challenger brand even though on paper we may have larger market share, because there are lots of upstart brands nipping at our heels."
Nathan Brown, U.S. CEO, PHD

So it’s partly an effort to make the agency more attractive to young talent.
I made a decision that the Deltas and VWs are important, but having startups and upstarts in portfolio will not only help attract different kinds of talent and retain it longer, but also to be better with bigger clients. We don’t want them all to be Fortune 500. They won’t keep you successful in the long run.

Could you elaborate on that?
Before Omnicom bought PHD, they were a challenger brand that worked with other challenger brands. Its first client was The Guardian, and look where it is now—it’s the DNA of the agency. Lets face it, [almost] every brand is challenger brand now. For example, our client Harry’s has shaken up the shaving category. The Gillettes of the world are legitimately frightened of them. Oatly is very successfully taking on milk, and it will literally be in Starbucks in two weeks’ time. We need to constantly act like a challenger brand even though on paper we may have larger market share, because there are lots of upstart brands nipping at our heels.

And how does this strategy benefit PHD on the business front?
It’s not about money, it’s about what this kind of brand helps us take to larger brands like GSK. We live in a world where data, tech and marketing are all colliding. I look at the way MailChimp interacts with Google and their tech stack … we are now applying that to GSK. We’ve also started to make introductions to people. It’s public knowledge that Harry’s is growing exponentially and now selling in Walmart … there isn’t a big piece of business in this industry that isn’t having its share eroded by multiple smaller upstarts.


Given how much larger accounts like GSK and Delta are, how do you deal with the effect that the smaller clients have on your margins?
Your margins … are made, necessarily, on your biggest clients. Some of what the smaller clients bring in is less procurement-led, meaning they don’t start with a media buying template saying, ‘What are your rates?’ They start by asking how you’re going to help them grow and saying, let’s agree to basic terms of business and see where we go. Rather than a three-year contract with all these guarantees, you have a rolling 6 or 12-month agreement.

But initially you may lose some money on these accounts.
When you work with challenger brands, you have to be willing to be flexible in the early stages, knowing that the long-term growth potential will balance the upfront time investment. Some of these clients are more profitable but at a much smaller scale. On some of these accounts we are investing in them.

The point being it’s all preferable to procurement.
Procurement is there to push you down, not to extract value—and it comes at the expense of what is truly needed for growth. It reminds me of a recent review for a very large brand where we were fortunate enough to be in the final running. You’re trying to convince yourself that it’s not about cost and procurement, but after being wooed throughout the year you say, whoa, we’ve been hoodwinked.

So how do the pitches for these smaller clients work?
90 percent of it is basically meeting people. Agencies are used to spending $1 million in a losing pitch, particularly if it’s a global review, but all these wins have been us versus an incumbent without a formal drawn-out review; they’re primarily about recommendation and reference. Harry’s, for example, came from MailChimp, who recommended us. They’re not interested in the big headlines. They just want to get on and grow. 

How do you think this approach helps PHD stand out?
I think we’re really onto something here. Any sort of pitch for this type of business tends to be against much smaller media entities. That’s not to say they’re not good, but we have the best of both worlds: we have the brains, of strategic-led agencies, but we also have the brawn and scale as part of a holding company like Omnicom. Lots of our media competitors are obsessed with the big end of market We are as focused on that as anyone, but this other part of the market, ironically, will help us win more of the bigger ones.

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Still taught in classes to this day, Coca-Cola’s iconic “Hilltop” ad remains one of advertising’s most compelling beacons of marketing lighting up an otherwise boring world. If Coca-Cola created that ad today, it might look different, but not quite as cynically delicious as Snickers’ Super Bowl ad.

“Hilltop” is the overachieving kid of the family, and #SnickersFixTheWorld is the sibling that skated by getting mostly Bs (with a few Cs peppered in for good measure) and managed to hide the weekend party thrown while the parents were away.

In other words, it’s a glorious ad that fits right in with the joyfully snarky repertoire that the brand and its agency, BBDO New York, are known for. Clocking in at a little over a minute (there will be a 30-second spot in the game), some of the world’s most puzzling ills are put into musical relief.

“We need to constantly act like a challenger brand even though on paper we may have larger market share, because there are lots of upstart brands nipping at our heels.”
Nathan Brown, U.S. CEO, PHD

Grown men riding scooters, mom sending naughty selfies, parents naming a child Kale, funky autocorrect, politics and privacy all get skewered in anthemic form. But where the comparisons to Coca-Cola’s classic get a little more apparent is the hundreds of people singing together as they walk toward a massive hole in the ground (this explains the teasers) intending to feed the earth a Snickers bar.

Directed by Tom Kuntz, BBDO New York brought in talent from the wider network including AMV BBDO to take part in the fun.

Will chocolate, caramel, nougat and peanuts fix a cranky world’s problems? Probably not, but it’s a nice thought. There’s a fun payoff at the end that involves a selfie stick, and a welcome appearance from prolific character actor Luis Guzman. And don’t blink or you’ll miss cameos from actress Miranda Cosgrove, WWE star Charlotte Flair and delightfully loopy NBA icon Bill Walton.

It’s a unique way to keep the momentum rolling on the brand’s iconic positioning, “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry,” celebrating its 10th anniversary (has it been that long?) Additionally, it so happens that the Snickers brand has been around for 90 years.

“This new ad marks the latest evolution of our award-winning ‘You’re Not You’ campaign,” said Josh Olken, brand director of Snickers. “Since the first Super Bowl spot 10 years ago, we’ve shown the power of Snickers to satisfy when you’re out of sorts. Our attempt to ‘fix the world’ is a new angle, and our biggest yet: When the world itself is out of sorts, maybe it just needs a Snickers.”

Wouldn’t that be nice? And it sure will be interesting to see what happens with the digital extensions of the campaign, which includes some social action from some of the celebs who have participated in the campaign over the years.


The brand is out there now with #SnickersFixTheWorld, and it’s highly likely that most people will get the joke while others will continue to be miserable—nothing a Snickers bar can’t fix.

For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2020 Ad Tracker. And join us on the evening of Feb. 2 for the best in-game coverage of the commercials anywhere.


“Snickers Fixes The World”

Client: Mars Chocolate North America
Tanya Berman: VP of Marketing
Josh Olken: Brand Director, SNICKERS® Brand
Martin Terwilliger Sr.: Brand Manager, SNICKERS® Brand
Michael Italia: Head of Social Media & Digital Content at the Hive
Seth Dager: Head of Social Creative at the Hive
Betsy Magilnick: Social Media Strategist at the Hive
Rankin Carroll: Global VP, Chocolate Category BU
Dale Green: Global Brand Director, SNICKERS®/ Bars

Creative Agency: BBDO

David Lubars: Chief Creative Officer – BBDO Worldwide
Greg Hahn: Chief Creative Officer – BBDO New York
Alex Grieve: Chief Creative Officer – AMV BBDO
Scott Mahoney: Creative Director/Writer – BBDO New York
Dan Oliva: Creative Director/Art Director – BBDO New York
Alan Wilson: Writer – AMV BBDO
Diccon Driver: Art Director – AMV BBDO
Charlotte Adorjan: Creative Director – AMV BBDO
Matt Swinburne: Creative Director – AMV BBDO
Gianfranco Arena: Executive Creative Director – BBDO New York
Peter Kain: Executive Creative Director – BBDO New York
Larissa Magera: Copywriter – BBDO New York
Morgan Hoff: Art Director – BBDO New York
David Rolfe: EVP, Director of Integrated Production – BBDO New York
Amy Wertheimer: EVP, Group Executive Producer – BBDO New York
Sarah Knowlton: Associate Producer – BBDO New York
Julia Millison: Music Producer – BBDO New York
Melissa Chester: Music Producer – BBDO New York
Paul Cisco: Business Manager – BBDO New York
Kirsten Flanik: CEO & President, BBDO New York
Susannah Keller: EVP, Global Business Leader, Mars – BBDO New York
Lisa Piliguian: EVP, Senior Account Director – BBDO New York
Tani Corbacho: VP, Account Director – BBDO New York
Elizabeth O’Connor: Account Manager – BBDO New York
Jacob Plastina: Account Executive – BBDO New York
Richard Moloney: Client Partner – AMV BBDO
Luke Slater: Senior Account Director – AMV BBDO
Philippa Field: Board Account Director – AMV BBDO
Crystal Rix: Chief Marketing Officer – BBDO Worldwide
Annemarie Norris: SVP, Group Director, Behavioral Planning. – BBDO New York
Christina Stoddard: Group Planning Director – BBDO New York
Brian Brydon: Comms Planning Director – BBDO New York
Nicola Willison: Strategy Director AMV BBDO

Talent Agency: The Marketing Arm

Brad Sheehan: Celebrity Talent Acquisitions

Production Company: MJZ

Tom Kuntz: Director
David Zander: President
Eriks Krumins: Senior Executive Producer
Emily Skinner: Producer
Linus Sandgren: Director of Photography
Brock Houghton: Production Designer

Editorial: Mackenzie Cutler

Gavin Cutler: Editor
Pamela Petruski: Editor
Megan Heard: Assistant Editor
Gina Pagano: Executive Producer

Mix: Heard City

Keith Reynaud” Mixer

Color: Company 3

Tim Masick: Colorist

VFX: The Mill

Phil Crowe: Creative Director
Anastasia Von Rahl: Executive Producer
Melanie Roy: Producer
Bret Aros: Coordinator
Dan Warom: 3D Lead
Tim Crabtree: 2D Lead
Kai Tsai: Assistant
Remedy Huynh: Assistant

Music: We Are Walker

Sara Matarazzo: Senior Executive Producer
Abbey Hendrix: Executive Producer

Hispanic Agency: Third Ear

Serge Flores: Executive Creative Director
Rene Gardner: Senior Copywriter
Javier Peraza: Senior Copywriter
Rina Tiffer: Group Account Director
Meredith McBroom: Senior Account Executive
Michael McLaughlin: Senior Producer