Opinion: Perspective - Why David Pattison departure is end of an era

When David Pattison and Jonathan Durden quit WCRS in 1989 to launch PHD with Nick Horswell, they promised to be the Bartle Bogle Hegarty of media independents.

It was a bold promise. Impertinent, even. Remember, these were the days when media was the grubby end of the advertising business. In full-service agencies, this was the department where the carpets gave way to lino, and the public school brogue that dominated elsewhere was replaced by the brawl of the market-trader. And the new breed of media independents starting up were even worse: gorillas with calculators hunkered down in cheap warehouse-like offices trading media as a commodity.

OK - these are gross cliches, but streaked through with the realities of life in the media market. So PHD's ambitions were pretty audacious at the time. But over the past 17 years, the company has operated with a creative principle, an integrity and a commitment to quality that few agencies, media or creative, achieve.

So this week's news that Pattison is finally quitting the agency has more than a ring of the end-of-an-era about it. The wise Mr Horswell left in 2002 to launch his Uncle advisory service; the simply brilliant Mr Durden still works for PHD but part-time, as his creative impulse has taken him off into writing and TV production. And, of course, Tess Alps - not a founder, but she might as well have been, such was her contribution to the agency over the past 13 years - left earlier this year to head Thinkbox.

Pattison, the lynchpin of the PHD brand both here and, now, globally, has been the one constant that has kept the PHD values alive over nearly two decades. He has steered the agency though a sale to Omnicom (for a, retrospectively, meagre £12 million) in 1996, got the crucial American office on course and set the brand on a successful international path. And for the past year or so he has been an industry voice of reason and integrity as the president of the IPA.

So Pattison's departure is a real body blow to Omnicom. Talent and experience of his calibre is so thin on the ground that he will be a significant loss to the company. Though the official promotion of the shrewd and spikey Morag Blazey to the chief executive role at PHD UK will ensure strong management continuity in London.

It's not clear what Pattison will do next. But it seems unlikely he'll pitch up at another media company - where can you possibly go after the triumph of PHD? Yet how can the business afford to let go of its best practitioners. It's not the first time, of course. How crazy, for example, that Pattison's mate Mark Cranmer - one of the best media men of his generation - now works in research? The media industry simply cannot afford to lose people with the passion and insight of a Pattison or a Cranmer if it is to resist the inevitably reductive pull back towards the creative agency axis on the one hand or the commodity trading route of the big negotiation points on the other. But then if the pioneers of the media business are checking out, perhaps it's already too late.

Given the above, it's worth noting Laurence Green's brilliant analysis of the key learnings from the industry's most effective campaigns (page 26). Top of the list is "sit media at the top table" and Green reckons that, old or new, media can profoundly influence the effectiveness of your communications.

Now I reckon that's pretty blindingly obvious, but there are an awful lot of senior people in advertising who, at least until fairly recently, might not agree. But without a real sensitivity toward using media to really engage with consumers, even the best creative work will be undersold.

So the time should be right for the second coming of media, sitting not only at the top table but driving the process. With so much senior, entrepreneurial talent bailing out, though, who is really going to grasp the opportunity? - claire.beale@haynet.com.

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