Mindshare’s Cowdell Wins Clients, Tweaks Processes

Since he was promoted to CEO of WPP’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. The shop, which had U.S. billings of $8.7 billion and $350 million in revenues in 2008, is also involved in a handful of ongoing new business pitches valued at $500 million in billings.

That’s all good news. It also helps to make up for the agency’s recent loss of Bristol-Myers
Squibb, whose prerecession spending, per Nielsen, exceeded $400 million.

Cowdell said his real priority making sure other clients, such as Ford, Sprint and American Express, are both “happy and profitable.” That list, of course, also includes Unilever, which is doing a series of regional reviews including the ongoing review in the U.S., where it spent $640 million on measured media last year.

Asked if he’s had to put out many client fires, Cowdell quipped, “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 match boxes.”

He’s also found issues with the agency’s back-office operational controls and client capabilities. Digital strategy and data analytics are two areas he’s looking to improve. More generally, he noted, 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 Power Point presentations, which he has barred, by and large, 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.”

Clients seem to like Cowdell’s approach. “Phil is passionate and has deep knowledge about his clients’ businesses,” said Simon McPhillips, director of media at Sprint, who has known Cowdell since the two of them 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, senior vp marketing at Royal Caribbean agreed. “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.”