Omnicom’s PHD Leans Into The Future Of The Media Plan

In the future, brands will have to navigate a world in which consumers use their eyeballs to search for content and next-generation artificial intelligence layers connect our brains to the cloud.

At least that’s the future envisioned by Omnicom media agency PHD and its worldwide planning and strategy director, Mark Holden.

“The technology now facing us wants to merge with us,” said Holden, and being mindful of that means that when “we see a new piece of technology, we can assess it through the paradigm of the next moment.”

It all sounds a bit like sci-fi.

But at the heart of PHD’s futuristic pitch is the same urgency all legacy media planning and buying agencies are feeling to stay relevant and innovate in a rapidly changing world.

“Media agencies are transitioning into full-service marketing agencies,” Holden said. “The classic media agency moniker is not useful anymore for defining what a media agency does.”

PHD recently published a book called “Merge: The Closing Gap Between Technology And Us’” about the imminent fusing of humans with technology. The book, which features a foreword penned by futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, is a signal to the market of PHD’s ambition to connect brands with consumers as media continues to fragment and move closer to people.

“In 2030, we’ll start to extend our minds and neocortex [and] we will merge with artificial intelligence,” Kurzweil said at a panel hosted by PHD in Cannes. “Look at the technical priorities affecting your business and see where they’re going to go in the course of your project. The actual parameters you can predict very precisely.”

Holden spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Where do you see PHD in five years? 

MARK HOLDEN: Hopefully we’ll be seen as a marketing communications consultancy that’s able to navigate clients through what is going to become an even more complex environment.

What personality does a brand chatbot have? What’s the audio UI on personal assistants? There are so many layers that need to be considered. In five years, we’ll be working across all of those as a marketing adviser.

PHD racked up around $4 billion of media spend in client wins last year. How are you maintaining momentum in a tough pitch environment?

Volkswagen has catapulted us in the rankings. We’ve had to employ hundreds of people across the world to evolve our product so we’re a match for the future.

[We’ve brought] in data engineers and people who understand programmatic, marketing and ad tech and how they interoperate. We’re avoiding generalists.

What’s PHD’s value prop to clients? How do you compete with a new data-driven agency like Hearts & Science?

PHD has always been about planning. Dressing it up any more than that, you venture into too much spin and artifice.

Hearts & Science takes a data-led approach. We see data as important, but it might not always be front and center. Prioritizing innovation is so important, particularly in a world where we’ve become so obsessed with data.

PHD was launched in 1990. How have you evolved to stay innovative? 

We hire from outside the industry or media planning and buying vertical. We’re hiring from tech companies. They have a different mindset. That’s really what we need to do to upgrade.

We also write thought leadership pieces and books. We draw from the intelligence within our organization, crystallize it and play it back to people, and they start to see where things could and are likely to go.

How do you apply innovation to media buying, which is so transactional?

It’s easy to forget that above [data and technology] is a layer where we spend our time. We’re helping clients [figure out] what their product might look like, how it might be packaged, how we might unfold it over time and how we express the idea creatively.

There’s strategic work before we portion audiences and model them out with a cookie or device ID pool. That decisioning is the middle stage. There’s a whole consulting layer above that.

Is consulting a new service for PHD? 

It’s become more robust. Our clients expect us to do portfolio planning for all their products. How do we separate them? Which ones should we invest in?

A crucial difference is we don’t take ownership in technology. You can correlate increasing complexity with an increasing need for consultancy. You cannot provide consultancy if you’re already invested in technology. You have skin in the game.

Your competitors have taken different positions. Does that hinder you from getting the best rates for clients? 

It doesn’t necessarily do that. When a client hears we want to be neutral, it’s hard for them to not see that benefit.

Some clients don’t want to think about it; they just want a bundled approach. But generally, I think clients want more control. They want to in-house data and technical relationships. We can help them do that. We can build utilities around it, but, fundamentally, it’s theirs.

How do you get clients to buy into your more visionary ideas as they’re fighting cost pressures? 

Our global communications planning [sets] principles around how to flite and build reach against audiences. When you apply those principles, clients get 10% to 40% improvements in ROI. That’s beyond anything that can be achieved from trying to reduce costs. Many clients are waking up to the fact that media agencies offer so much more value in that environment.

Edited for clarity.

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