PHD's winning strategy

By Val Maloney

RECENT YEARS HAVE SEEN MODERN MEDIA AGENCIES take a pretty low-tech game into their boardrooms: the limbo. The rules? Bend (but don't break) your back in order to reach ever-lower prices and win the prize of a new client.

Fred Forster, president at PHD Canada and CEO at Omnicom Media Group Canada, is calling a time out. He says PHD, strategy's 2016 Gold Media Agency of the Year, is differentiating itself the way it always has — with strategy.

"If you look at where the business is today, we have kind of hit rock bottom in terms of being able to get things as cheap as we possibly can," says Forster. "Let's not kid ourselves: so much of the pitches are still based on price and are procurement-led. We are at a point and time where a lot of the agencies are at the same level in terms of how cheap we can make it. Strategy starts to play a more important role in how agencies can win when the field has been levelled in terms of price."

Strategy is built into PHD's strategic planning framework, says Forster. That has been expanded most recently with the introduction of global online gamified planning tool Source, which allows PHD staff to contribute to country-level projects in other regions. At the end of the third quarter, PHD Canada was sitting at the top of Source's global leaderboard, says Forster, an impressive feat considering the size of the team compared with larger markets like the U.K. and U.S.

"Source is unique in allowing us to put together very strong channel plans, but also something that is easily understood by clients and sets us apart as we pitch new business," says Forster. "It's now the linchpin of the organization in many ways."

This year PHD hired 73 new staff in Canada, and won clients including the CPA, Government of Ontario, Intact Financial Services and University of New Brunswick.

Matt Devlin, managing director, communications planning, says those wins are partly thanks to the agency collaborating more with Omnicom's business units — which include search and social practice Resolution Media, programmatic arm Accuen and data marketing service Annalect.

Forster expects Omnicom's business units to become increasingly involved with existing clients and new business as data continues to inform strategy. Working more closely with the growing business arms has allowed the agency's culture to remain intact while also rapidly expanding. Most recently, he says, that growth has included working programmatic directly into client plans rather than keeping it on the fringes.

"The growth of programmatic and the growth of our data and analytics teams are the two most pronounced changes we are seeing," Forster says. "We are moving into a world where most media will be biddable and digital in some form. The key is to try and stay ahead of it, because it always tends to happen faster than you think."

According to RECMA's overall billing activity statistics for 2015, PHD ranked #3 in the market. The agency had an 11.3% share of the Canadian industry for the year, bringing in $917 million in billings. That's up from $673 million for 2014.

But don't expect the team to rest on the laurels of this year's performance.

"This business is evolving so fast that we can't be satisfied with the structures or skill sets we have," he says. "It has to be constantly in motion and we have to think down the road as we try and make decisions today. And hopefully we have another good year next year."