Yahoo! Big Idea Chair: Durden deliberates

Jonathan Durden, the PHD president, takes Yahoo!'s Big Idea Chair to share his views on the media-creative divide and building brands online.

On starting out

No-one was waiting for PHD to be created. It was not a world-changing event, except for David (Pattison), Nick (Hors-well) and I. We three founders are fortunate brothers, bonded by a shared roller-coaster experience, which, for us, will probably never be repeated.

If one is ever going to leap from a cliff and into an abyss, it is comforting to be holding hands with your two best friends at the time. It felt both terrifying and exhilarating, particularly as our fate was always going to be bound up with factors totally outside our control, such as luck and timing.

On starting an agency when we did

1 February, 1990 was the launch day not because of any master plan based on meticulous planning after studying the shifting global financial climates. It was just our moment to make our bid for independence and when our notice periods ran out. Just blind luck. It turned out to be the first day of that post-80s economic recession.

With hindsight it looks like madness to have started up then, but it was the making of us. In times of economic downturn clients look to specialists over establishment fat cats to help them fight strongly for them. The Guardian was our first client, and it shared our leap into the abyss in many ways. We will never be able to say how much we owe Caroline Marland, Carolyn McCall, Martina King and David Brook for that faith in us.

On who will own the planning process in ten years' time

I think the groups will have pooled the best brains into central hubs within their networks, leaving the specialists free to create and execute without overlapping and squabbling about strategy ownership. I think these hubs are yet to be formed, but it makes logical sense to me were I running a group, in order to streamline and upgrade the intelligent resource available for the paying customers.

There will also be scope for independent planning specialist companies, obviously, and they in turn will be bought by the flagging, less successful networks of the day at a massive premium. (Spoken to the background soundtrack of Circle of Life from The Lion King.)

On the media-creative divide

This divide is narrowing thanks to companies such as Naked, and the clear acknowledgement in the value of media within the whole process. Some media companies are investing in true creative resources, and most advertising agencies are reintroducing media into their organisations. Everyone is conscious of through-the-line thinking and I think we are blessed with very few idiots in our marketing industry, despite our natural cynicism. This divide question is less and less true as time goes by.

On building brands online

This is the increasingly interesting challenge. Some of the biggest brands in the world were built and exist virtually only online. Yahoo!, Google, eBay, etc. There is a clue there for any brand. It is not only possible, but also essential, to consider it as a brand medium. If anyone in marketing is in any doubt about the power of online as a branding tool and the major role it has carved out today, let alone tomorrow, then save yourself some career pain and shoot yourself.

On gimmickry in media agency pitches

Tender documents are like having vampires suck the marrow from your bones. So who would begrudge media professionals the opportunity to dramatise our pitches when we do have some great ideas? Give us a break; it's tough out there.

On integrated communications planning

It is real. It is here. It is not fully formed yet, though. It should eventually live in a dedicated brains hub.

On ad-funded programming

Brands belong in content because brands are part of normal life. Ad-funded programming, product placement and sponsorship are all natural 21st-century methods of communication. It is their time as effective credible routes to market. The pioneering element of discovering how to use them is the exciting bit, by learning where the boundaries might be. I think it will have increasing value and traditional advertising will begin to take on a more content-like feel and format in design. This will further narrow the gap between the paid-for message and asked-for entertainment.

On WPP versus Omnicom

We sold PHD at a time when we believed it was no longer an advantage to be independent, but to be aligned. We were approached by Lowe (Interpublic Group) and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (Omnicom). Sir Martin Sorrell (WPP) never showed any interest in us. ("Do I look bothered?" Actually, we were.) In fact, we sold to Omnicom; but we really sold to Peter Mead and specifically Michael Baulk at AMV, who is a man we were all proud to call "boss". The price was fair and the brand fit was flattering. There are no regrets and everyone was a winner, even after ten years of reflection since the deal was struck.

On what gets me excited these days

I love writing. My first novel is finished and I'm now working on a screenplay. I love being a true non-absent dad and half a mother, although this tests me daily. I love each and every second of life and even the shit times are suddenly wonderful.

On piercing

I think it's pathetic. I have had an earring and a tattoo since I was 47. I walked into a parlour in Portugal and, in Little Britain style, said: "I want that one."

On the big idea

There will be another one along in a minute. (Wish I had invented the iPod, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google or eBay.)

On big ideas in media

In media campaign terms, anything from John Harlow, Mark Holden, Mark Sherwood, Richard Eyre, Sue Unerman, Nick McClean, Laurence/Simon@Drum, Mark Wood, Blair Kremple, Tom Tomazis, Matthew Freud, Ivan Pollard or Robin Wight. I loved Kevin Brown's work on Boddingtons at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in the 80s and the launch of First Direct through HHCL.

On a big idea in the future in any field

An education system that teaches children about how lucky we all are just to be born (everyone is a Lottery winner), and how to communicate, connect and sell things. Now that's an idea.

- The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair shines a spotlight on people and companies whose creative work is truly remarkable. See for more details.


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