Phil Smith seeks better deal for brands as new ISBA boss

Campaign meets the new director-general of ISBA, who is ready to "slay the demons" of the past.

Smith: ‘We’ve done really good work but not knitted everything together to tell a compelling story for marketing leaders’
Smith: ‘We’ve done really good work but not knitted everything together to tell a compelling story for marketing leaders’

Phil Smith, the new director-general of advertiser trade body ISBA, does not exactly bring to mind a demon slayer. Yet nine days after taking office, the former Camelot marketer known for his poise and acuity is crackling with energy and ready to "slay the demons" of the past. 

One of those "demons" is not quite media agencies themselves but the distrust that exists between them and brands. In a contentious move, ISBA last year urged its 400-plus members – including Tesco, Burberry and Coca-Cola – to tighten their media contracts because, according to a quote in the Financial Times from director of consultancy and best practice Debbie Morrison, media agencies don’t have their clients’ best interests at heart.  

"Simply taking the view that we are here as [advertisers’] bulwark and defender is not a tenable position," Smith says. "It’s going to change. However, ISBA is in a unique position to say things that individual advertisers are not able to. We know, for example, that the prices being paid for some of the new media opportunities are high compared to any evidence of demonstrated return." 

Smith is happy to speak out about the issues shaping the digital media and marketing landscape as part of his brief to deliver demonstrable value for ISBA members. 

What about the row that has been simmering since last year’s launch of the media agency contract template? Is ISBA still at war with some of the big media agencies?

"I want to avoid the language of war," Smith says. "I don’t want to make automatic assumptions of who our friends are, who our foes are. I think the real foe is the bad situation the industry has managed to get itself into." 

ISBA refuses to divulge the number of agencies that have agreed to the suggested contract.

About the "noise" generated in the press, he adds: "It was a big issue that needed to be surfaced, though I’m not sure I would have used all of the words that were used at the time. 

"We are working today with some media agencies on the way in which we can evolve this contract so that it becomes a framework that is workable, but the basic principle of transparency is one that needs to be resolved and won’t go away. It is something I will be focusing on during the course of next year alongside digital audience measurement, ad fraud, ad-blocking etc."

In the longer term, Smith’s agenda also includes a reboot of the organisation itself. His predecessor, Mike Hughes, was in the role for a decade. 

"ISBA needs to look itself in the mirror when it comes to its modus operandi and its structure," Smith admits. "We’ve done really good work in particular pockets like media transparency but not really knitted everything together to tell a compelling story for marketing leaders." 

Campaign last year reported that ISBA was struggling to recruit new members and had experienced falling cash reserves. As his members’ spend comes under increasing scrutiny, Smith concedes that it is up to ISBA to make itself more relevant. He re-iterates that ISBA has to be seen to be helping to create sustainable businesses rather than "bashing" suppliers. 

Heading a trade body for advertisers at a time when questions are being raised over trust, transparency and the effectiveness of marketing represents a considerable challenge for Smith. So what does he bring to the table? 

He points to his "mongrel" background – a career spanning manufacturing, food, retail and digital. 

Smith spent ten years at Kraft before going on to join beleaguered retailer Kwiksave. 

At Camelot, Smith helped turn the business around by overseeing a new marketing strategy and a pipeline of new products (including introducing lottery tickets to supermarket aisles and Britain’s first £2m scratch card).

His colleagues at ISBA say: "Change is coming." 

Although he claims to not quite be ready with his elevator pitch, Smith does seem serious about leading positive change in the industry. 

"I do have a 100-day plan and I will launch my manifesto at our annual conference on 8 March," he says. "If there are demons, we need to slay them. What we are really trying to do is create a better industry in which marketing can thrive."

Phil Smith biography

1983: Group product manager at Alberto Culver UK

1986: Joins Kraft. Stays for ten years, latterly as vice-president, strategy, for western Europe

1996: Becomes marketing and trading director at Kwiksave before joining Somerfield board as group marketing director

2002: Moves to Camelot, the National Lottery operator, as commercial and operations director 

2007: Appointed managing director at Musgrave GB 

2012: Named commercial director for 1,000-boat Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant

Smith has also worked on a number of early-stage and start-up digital businesses, most recently with point-of-sale marketing specialist Ecrebo.

He has a degree in classics from Jesus College, Oxford, and is married with five children.

The word he hates most is engagement.

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