First Mover: Steve Williams

PHD's New York chief likes data, but loves ideas, minding details and young talent


Age 47

New gig President, PHD, New York

Old gig CEO, OMD Group, U.K.

How’s the new job so far?

The opportunity to learn the U.S. market is a privilege. Lot to learn. It’s a very different scale. It’s my task to really get inside the fabric of the market here and understand it in order to do the work I need to do. I love the attachment that PHD has to a number of U.S. creative agencies. Creative is certainly in our gene pool.

Is data a common creative currency in your world now?

Yes. I think data is a currency. I don’t think it’s the only currency. Creativity is about thinking and doing, and thinking without the doing is irrelevant. If it doesn’t drive business forward, it just ends up being a nice idea. Actionable ideas is what it’s all about. Data certainly informs that, there’s no question. But I think it would be a mistake to get muddied by data.

What’s been popping you out of bed in the morning?

The thing I want to get on with urgently is how we can create more, bigger, better ideas for our clients. I think we have the opportunity to claim some territory, and I just want to make sure that every single person here is driven by the power of an idea.

How do those ideas shake loose?

Foster an organization that has a body of people courageous enough to speak up. So we will make sure that we have, if you will, an increasingly “up” culture with regards to the development of ideas.

What do your people need to be better at?

We could be bolder and have the courage to speak up and have the courage to try some different things and to take a client with you on an idea. There’s magic about our business at the moment, and I think that’s why young people are pumped up about getting into it, because it’s an industry where your imagination can take you anywhere.

What tech has changed your life personally?

Anything that keeps me switched on mobile. My Windows Phone, my iPhone, my BlackBerry to my tablet—I love it all. I’m thirsty for knowledge around mobile, and I think we’re on the dawning of a new mobile world at the moment. What you can do with targeted, hyper-mobile, hyper-local mobile activity—it’s fascinating.

Do you have an media icon?

There’s a Bill Bernbach quote that I think still holds up: “An idea can turn into dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs up against it.” That says so much to me. If that makes you go a bit funny, then you know that you’re probably going to love this business. If you don’t feel anything, well, you won’t go anywhere.

Have a management style?

I’m quite the detail king. “King” is the wrong word, but I’m obsessed by detail. Have you come across Rory Sutherland at Ogilvy London? He did a talk once and said, “Agencies should have presidents of detail. We got to give a shit, we’ve got to get stuff right.”

Are we going to see a senior vp of detail?

I doubt it. But I’m very keen on having a culture of learning here. We need to be obsessive about that,in a good way.

I noticed you have a Muhammad Ali poster. Inspiration?

I loved him when he was in his prime, and how obsessive he was about winning. He was smart and respectful, but was always super-obsessive about winning while having some real charm as well. That’s why I like him. We can attempt to do everything with style, but he did most things with style. 


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