Media Headliner: How Holden plans to set PHD apart from its rivals

Thought leadership, not just its heritage, can be PHD's point of difference, its new global strategy director tells Jeremy Lee.

There's something quite reassuring about seeing Mark Holden walking the corridors of PHD's London headquarters after a four-year gap that saw him establish the agency brand in Australia.

It's not just his sunny disposition or that the agency is in desperate need of his cheerful nature - quite the opposite, in fact, given that it is Campaign's Media Agency of the Year in the UK and has won new business including Unilever in China and the global Porsche account.

Rather, it's good to see a familiar face - one that has PHD seeping out of every pore - back and centre-stage. It just seems right and, as one of the planning discipline's pointiest of pointy-heads (both figuratively and literally), it's likely that this will also be good for PHD.

Like it or not - and it seems to be a matter of mild irritation for PHD's worldwide chief executive, Mike Cooper - the heritage of the agency is still what defines it and differentiates it from its rivals. It probably always will be.

And, having worked at the agency for ten years, Holden is a significant part of this past. Having been brought in by the founder Jonathan Durden and the former chief executive Tess Alps to run Rocket, he swiftly worked his way up the agency organogram and played a large part in the repositioning and re-energising of PHD when it was in danger of foundering in the mid-2000s (he even designed its current logo).

After four years in Australia, he's now back tasked with the newly created job of global strategy and planning director to co-ordinate PHD's network of 72 worldwide offices.

"I always wanted to do the role - it's something that PHD really needs. As a planning-led agency, you need someone to champion the cause," he says. Holden admits to having pushed for the job to be created for the past 18 months, having successfully created from scratch a PHD offering in Sydney. Having arrived as PHD's only employee, based out of OMD's Australian headquarters, he was pivotal in the purchase of Total Advertising, which eventually became its Antipodean outpost.

The creation of PHD Australia wasn't a simple rebadging process or something that happened overnight, Holden acknowledges - and given its cultural baggage, how could it be? Along with a euphemistic "big restructuring" that saw a wholesale change in staff, he worked with the consultant Gary Duckworth to instil the PHD culture into the agency. This should stand him in good stead as he seeks to imbue the network with a universal planning process that differentiates it from its rivals.

With the zeal of a salesman, he talks of how developments in technology have meant that there is the need for a new media agency model. He argues that much of the back-office functions will become automated and software-based, while value-based planning that uses computational modelling, mathematics and neuroscience will become an upscale offering that clients will want to pay for. He says that his role is to ensure that this infrastructure is in place across the network, describing his job as akin to that of an engineer.

An "engineer" is the latest in a series of job titles that might be applied to Holden - in fact, his original intention was to join the advertising industry as an art director and it is largely thanks to Will Awdry's fastidiousness that this ambition was thwarted.

Awdry, then a creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, interviewed Holden - and his then partner, Simeon Adams - as a creative team when the pair had just left Watford College, determined to get a job at BBH. Having cornered Awdry at an awards dinner, they managed to persuade him to see their work.

Knowing that their portfolio was thin, Holden had padded it out with some of his sixth-form projects. Aware of the work's shortcomings (Adams now describes it as "utter rubbish"), Holden sat there giggling while Awdry rounded on it. "We left, looked at each other and said: 'Let's try a media department,'" Holden recalls.

The creative industry's loss has been media planning's gain. After developing an early interest in neuroscience, Holden is an enthusiastic advocate of neuroplanning.

Indeed, he says that an alternative career would be psychoanalysis.

Alps, now the chief executive of Thinkbox, says that Holden manages to straddle being an analytical and a creative planner. "He has an ability to absorb any number of complex hypotheses, analyse them, discard the rubbish ones, simplify them for any audience and make them actionable and practical for comms planning," she explains.

For PHD, which despite finally having the makings of a network, still lacks anything like the size of, say, Mindshare or ZenithOptimedia, possessing a point of difference such as this is a sensible move given that it is unlikely it will ever be able to compete in terms of scale.

Holden is aware of this and says that his role is to embed this focus on thought leadership across the network. "There's something about PHD that makes it different. It's always had higher values and has pushed the levels of thinking in the business, making it a destination for thought leader marketers," he claims.

His role is to convince that these "thought leader marketers" that despite its relative lack of scale, PHD is different from the morass. Don't bet against the multi-faceted Holden pulling it off.

Age: 38
Family: Married, two children
Favourite media: The BBC and Mashable
Last book read: The Predictioneer's Game by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
Alternative career: Psychoanalyst
Interests outside work: Science and technology news