The World: PHD poised to realise global network ambition

After a string of launches around the world, the network is casting the net to secure its first global client, Alasdair Reid writes.

When PHD's chief executive, David Pattison, announced just over a year ago that his agency was to be developed into a global network, there were, it has to be said, sceptics. He said, for instance, that the process would be, to all intents and purposes, "complete" by the beginning of this year. Then, remember, the agency only had offices in the UK, the US and Canada.

PHD outgrew its origins as a rather faddish media boutique long ago. But the most successful international media brands have traditionally been those with the simplest, and least subtle, propositions. PHD's approach, with its fastidious pursuit of planning quality, was hardly going to travel, was it?

We will soon see. PHD has confounded the doubters by delivering on the first half of its promise. A huge chunk of the infrastructure of what will be Omnicom's new second-string media network is now in place.

The process started towards the end of last year, with the launch of an agency in Dubai. Additions have ensued apace: Hong Kong in February; Portugal in April; Estonia and the Czech Republic in May; Denmark, Norway and Spain in June; Austria and Germany in July; and, last month, Hungary, Latvia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Shanghai, Singapore and Thailand.

Three more launches are scheduled this month: Finland, Sweden and Russia. November will see the most concerted show of pyrotechnics to date when the whole of the network's Latin American presence (seven major markets, at any rate) will come on-stream together. Nor will there be any let-up, with a dozen European markets and five in the Asia-Pacific region to be added next year.

Pattison is not naming names but it's not hard to guess the most urgent goals. It won't be much of a European network until France and Italy are added, for instance.

Still, the network has been built astonishingly quickly, after drawing on the strengths of existing Omnicom Media Group resources. In many markets, this has involved restructuring what were, effectively, Omnicom agency media departments or local brand independents. But the situation in Asia has been even simpler, with PHD simply taking over and rebadging an existing Omnicom-owned network, Media Wise, which has 35 offices across the region.

There have been start-ups too, Hong Kong for instance, but building a comparable network through these, and acquisitions, would take years, not months.

Pattison hates words such as "rebadging" or "rebranding", arguing that the process involves an awful lot more than reprinting letterheads and business cards.

"It's important that every single agency looks and feels like PHD and is true to our planning and strategy position," he says. "All new agencies come to the UK for an immersion in 'PHD-ness'."

That's why, for instance, only half of the Media Wise offices have attained PHD certification to date. He says it is vital that the network is committed to showing clients that PHD "exists in a different space". He adds: "We want to be appointed by clients who appreciate that we are a challenger brand that does things differently."

It's surely going to be hard, though, breaking into the network big league - not just because PHD is a relatively esoteric player but because it is such a latecomer. Before Omnicom (which bought PHD in 1996) got its act together on the media side, PHD's geographical ambitions extended no further than Manchester.

Pattison admits the notion of network has emerged slowly - almost by stealth. "When we launched in the US in 2002, we were curious to see whether the PHD product, and positioning, was exportable. Omnicom took time to recognise that PHD had real potential and our ambitions became the greater."

The real proof of the pudding, PHD believes, will come in the big international pitches. The network only has one real piece of transnational business, Standard Chartered Bank, which Media Wise already held across five Asian markets. But the network is already on the pitch-list in Dell's £200 million global review and Unilever's review in Eastern Europe.

If it wins a global client, it will face a scary few weeks as it aims to put global account management structures in place. But most of the key senior personnel are there: Hilary Jeffrey is the managing director of PHD in Europe, Steve Grubbs is the head of North America, and a managing director is about to be announced in Asia. Pattison adds that OMG could be counted on to help bridge any short-term gaps.

There's still a smell of wet paint about the place but Pattison, who admits he's sometimes reluctant to blow his own trumpet, says he's getting there. "My philosophy is 'show, don't tell'. Over-promising is what concerns me most. We're now in all the markets I had promised to be in by this point."

And, he says, there will be no panic about filling the network's remaining holes: "We've waited this long to get this far. A few more months won't kill us."

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