2020 Media AOY Silver: PHD taps into the art of science

Under a new global vision, the agency encourages clients to go beyond incremental jumps and aim for “disproportionate returns."

PHD - Group Photo

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

At the beginning of the year, PHD undertook the big task of galvanizing its leadership team with a slew of hires and promotions, as well as a new vision.

Following the retirement of SVP of marketing sciences Rob Young in late 2019, its leadership changes included establishing marketing sciences managing director Matt Devlin as the senior-most leader of the division, adding Emma Matthews as VP of strategy, hiring Zoryana Loboyko as managing director focused on planning and upping Angie Genovese to lead client business.

It was also looking to re-establish some of its values and priorities. “We were looking at what our ethos was, what direction we were heading in,” says PHD president Caroline Moul. It came up with a new vision, established at the global level, called “Make the Leap.” Moul describes it as a call-to-arms for its agency and clients to strive beyond incremental jumps and aim for “disproportionate returns from imaginative leaps.”

The need for greater imagination came fast and furious in March. “We’d just started rolling out all these changes, and we went into lockdown,” she says.

One of the biggest (and quickest) shifts she noticed was a hard lean into data and insights. “Our teams and our clients were really in tune with what was happening in the media space,” she says. Devlin, along with Matthews, were already prepared to pick up a lot of the slack from Young’s departure. Data and insights have always been crucial for media agencies, but Devlin says now it’s precisely what has enabled PHD and its clients to take those big leaps.

The data-savviness, he says, is best accompanied with humility. “There’s been a big mix of day-to-day uncertainty, but also a lot of clarity. And there really isn’t an expectation that we can get anything right these days. That actually allows a lot of room for innovation. People are not afraid of doing things differently, because that’s the way the world is now.”

Taking risks with long-established clients is one thing – doing so with a brand-new client is another. PHD won Arterra Wines early in the year, and subsequently onboarded the client virtually. Moul says that if it weren’t for the current crisis, the agency wouldn’t have carved out a strategy for the wine brand at a breakneck speed. PHD knew the client for four weeks when it came up with a sponsorship strategy for its Jackson-Triggs brand, which had an established association with music, says Moul. “How do you keep that association alive when live music isn’t really happening right now?”

The agency partnered with Bell Media’s iHeart Living Room Concert Series to have Jackson-Triggs be the main sponsor. Moul says the integration prompted more investment in online and digitized events, both from other Arterra brands (like Naked Grape’s sponsoring of a social media dating show accompanying Bell’s Love Island broadcast) and other clients on its roster (like former client Rogers Communications creating an online campaign to showcase its support for small businesses).

Not every outcome of the past seven months has been positive, says Moul, but they’re at least prompting curiosity. For example, she says, the agency has been testing the effectiveness of digital audio (including music streaming and podcasts) with some clients. While Moul couldn’t share which ones exactly, she says advertisers from categories including CPG and auto are experimenting more in the medium.

“When we dove into our numbers, we saw that digital audio was growing in double digits in some places throughout the pandemic,” she says.

While it would be easy to “over-exaggerate” and simply double down on digital audio investment, Moul says she’s eager to understand how to measure these media channels. “What we’ve found is a need to explore digital audio as a means to actually sell through. Measurement hasn’t been there.”

Moul and Devlin expect the marketing sciences team to be busy on the measurement front for months and years to come. With brands being ever-watchful of their marketing spend, they’re very quickly expecting more in terms of hard numbers and proof of return on ad spend.

As a result, PHD has already added six new employees to its marketing sciences team, while also heightening its focus on automation in that department. The team will need all the resources it can get, says Moul.

“I think 2020 has been the year that measurement [in general] got a wake-up. We have to get there quicker and prove that business outcomes have been delivered.”

New key business: LG; Casper; Arterra Wines; Allergan; Cubert; Ferrero; University of New Brunswick

New hires: Ben Roth, director analytics; Danyal Syed Ali, associate director; Emma Matthews, AVP, strategy, innovation

Staff: 178

To see the agency’s winning cases, visit the AOY website