#25 An Hour of Advertising with… Paul Phillips

One of my real ambitions for An Hour of Advertising is to reflect all parts of the industry. Yes, we’ve had the creatives and the suits and the planners, but we’ve also had the journalists and the headhunters and the clients too.

Another group that sits at the heart of advertising are the intermediaries. They say new business is the lifeblood of the industry, after all. And few, if any, spend as much time taking the temperature of agencies as they do.

So they have a pretty unique perspective, and I’ve had the privilege of chatting to some of the very best recently – all of which will be published this series.

First up we have Paul Phillips, the Managing Director of the AAR. Paul joined the AAR in 1998 to launch its media consultancy and since then has helped run some of the biggest pitches of the past 20 years.

He knows what clients really want, and what agencies really are able (and unable) to offer.

During our chat, we discuss how the industry has changed during his 30+ years in the business, from a bonkers start in the mad world of media agencies in the 90s, to seeing agencies go ‘all-in’ to win the world’s biggest ad accounts. We discuss some amazing examples of pitch theatre, when long-term relationships come to an end, and when you ‘just know’ that an agency has won an account…

Work Paul loves #1

Budweiser ‘Wassup

“Becoming part of culture is what the best advertising can achieve, and this spot was one of the earliest that I remember making the breakthrough.”

Part one: A drunken introduction to media, the prestige of the London media community and ‘meeja’ nights at the races…

Do you remember the first time you really fucked up?

I started my career in 1984 in the media department of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). Prior to joining, I didn’t know media existed – but after I didn’t get into any of the agency graduate training schemes, I ended up being offered a job at the media department of DDB. I worked for Terry McDonald, who was the incoming media director, and my job was basically to buy the management’s cigarettes!

I also did a bit of media planning – when I was allowed – and one of my clients was the COI, which used to advertise a lot in The Economist. The rep from The Economist took me out for lunch. We went to somewhere like Rules, and I’m having a fabulous time, because no-one ever took me out for lunch. And it was when we‘d finished the first bottle of red wine and he’d ordered the second bottle that I started to worry. Because I’d only just been a student – and when you’re a student you don’t drink decent bottles of red wine like this! Of course I’d got back to the office at 4pm, well over my allotted lunch break, pissed out of my head, pretending – only to myself – that everything was fine and I was in total control.

My boss said to me ‘Paul, sit at your desk, don’t pick up the phone, don’t talk to anyone, wait for 5:30 and then go home’. I’m saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine!’ which of course I wasn’t.  I remember coming in the next day, feeling like shit and terrified that I’d totally embarrassed myself. It was horrible. And whilst it wasn’t a ‘fuck up’ as such, it’s my earliest memory of something that really makes me cringe and could have gone another way. Looking back, a boozy media owner lunch was a rite of passage back then.

DDB is a great agency to start at though…

It was everything I thought an ad agency was about. My first salary was £6,000 and I’d only been there a couple of months when it was time for the annual pay rises came to be awarded. I got an extra £100, and was absolutely delighted! This was loose change down the back of the sofa for them, but to me, it was everything.

During my time there I very quickly realised that I didn’t want to be in account management, as I’d initially thought. They got grief from the creatives, they got told to fuck off from the media department, they were always coming back complaining about the clients. And here in the media department, I’m being taken out for lunch, I’m getting loads of freebies for Christmas, for someone just out of polytechnic, it’s amazing! So I decided to stay in media…          

You ended up at Horner Collis & Kirvan, which seems to have been full of people who have gone on to running the media industry!

At the time Horner Collis & Kirvan was one of the ‘new wave’ agencies. My boss was Bob Wootton (Bertie), I worked with Mike Tunnicliffe (Tuna) – who went on to run the CIA, Ian Anders(Ratty), who’s now one of the managing partners of Mediasense, and Mark Taylor (Tommy). When Mark left HCK he seemed to make a career of taking roles that were destined for redundancy, like The Weather Channel and getting massive payoffs. He was earning a fortune!

Did it feel very ‘meeja’?

Well we were lucky enough to work on the Peugeot business at a time when it’s market share rose from 2% to 6%. That was the financial engine driver of the agency. So we were constantly being entertained by media owners. So much so that we decided one night that we’d do something to entertain them, because they were always treating us so well! We hosted a summer evening at Kempton Races. The course was doing a promotion of ‘ladies go free’ so we hired a double decker bus, invited all our female sales reps, stocked up with champagne and hired a couple of good-looking lads, who in another world would be standing outside Abercrombie & Fitch, to serve the booze.

We had a blast, everyone loved a bit of a flutter on the races, and it was just happy days. I’ve still got the photos and it was so much of what ‘meeja’ was about, work hard for sure, but have a good time as well.

Did you feel part of the wider industry? Or was it tunnel-vision around your agency?

Oh no, it felt like a wider community. After work we’d go to the Duke of York, Marquis of Granby, Pillars of Hercules or Lamb and Flag, we all worked in a small village where everyone knew everyone else, or at least it felt like that.

And because I worked on Peugeot, I knew the other agency teams on the other automotive accounts; Hugh Lindsay ran Ford down at Ogilvy, Phil Georgiadis ran BMW at WCRS, Bob Offen ran Renault at Coleman RSCG.

We’d be going to the same industry events be it Media Week Awards or What Car? Car of the Year awards usually at The Grosvenor House. And it was fantastic! We were hugely privileged to be in those positions, which we probably didn’t recognise or appreciate at the time. 

Work Paul loves #2

Canal+ ‘The Closet’

“No mean feat to capture your attention for nearly 90 seconds and ‘the reveal’ delivers in spades.”

Part two: Media scandals, opportunities abroad and an unexpected career switch… 

You left Horner Collis & Kirvan in 1994, and at that point the media landscape was changing dramatically…

The consolidation of media was beginning to take place, so every agency having its own media department wasn’t going to work in this world. The agency itself was probably on the decline, and Euro RSCG was about to take it over. So I moved to an agency called WM Media, which was essentially a white label outpost of CIA (Chris Ingram Associates). Woolams Moira Gaskin O’Malley, another of the creative start-up’s had a partnership with CIA, after Chris had very smartly seen that new creative agencies needed media support, hence WM Media.

We were a department of about 6 or 7 people in what was, at the time a fully integrated agency with advertising, direct marketing and media capabilities all working together. Despite us working on some big brands like Virgin Atlantic and the launch of Mercury One2One (later to become T-Mobile then EE) the agency struggled. The partners were fighting and in media, everything was moving towards the mothership CIA at Paris Garden in Blackfriars. The writing was on the wall for WMGO and I went over to join CIA .

But CIA was having its own difficulties – with the odd scandal thrown in!?…

It was struggling, I think partly because Chris was spending a lot of time growing the agency in the US, so the eye was taken off the ball in the UK. But there was also what was a big scandal at the time. In media you’d do share arrangements with the TV contractors. It was all done on audience share, so if you were London Weekend with 24% of households and we promised you 26% of our budget, you’ll give us preferential rates. Of course, if we’re promising LWT 26%, then you’ve got to find cuts elsewhere.

Obviously what happened back then was that everyone ‘over-traded’, so you’d promise 110/120% overall, and you kept rolling it over from one year to the next. But we got found out, and the agency had to write a cheque back to ITV for c. £2 million. The story was covered on the front pages of Media Week and Campaign, and Carat (the original gorillas with calculators) wrote to all our clients saying ‘your agency is screwing you over, come and talk to us’. It certainly had a dramatic impact and it didn’t look good in the accounts!

But it was perhaps a blessing in disguise for you?

Well I got made redundant, along with approximately a third of the agency. But I knew in those two or three years at CIA that my future was not to try to climb to the top of the greasy media pole. I knew that I wasn’t good enough, and in hindsight that it’s not what I wanted, either.

But I’d been on a one-path career, I didn’t know anything else. Personally, I needed to work. I didn’t have the self-confidence to say, ‘it’ll be fine’. I didn’t have that ‘if you fall off the edge of a cliff you’ll be caught’ mentality. So I wanted to get back in straight away. And there was a job in Poland, running the Citroen account. I knew cars, and I convinced myself that a random job in Poland was the best job in the world. How lucky was I that I had this opportunity to go and work in Poland!? Of course, I didn’t even know where Poland was! I just needed to get back into work, and if that meant Poland, fine.

Luckily, Marco Rimini (now the Global Chief Development Officer of Mindshare) was with me at CIA, and his wife worked at AAR, which back then was called the Advertising Agency Register, but known to everyone as AAR. She asked him if there was anyone he knew who might be a good choice to set up AAR’s media division, and he suggested me.

Back then AAR was pretty much exclusively focussed on helping clients find advertising agencies. But Martin Jones had come on board and his vision was to replicate what the AAR did for ad agencies, with PR, direct marketing and media. And he needed people who knew what they were talking about in each of those different areas. We had a chat and talked about football, holidays, and perhaps a bit about media. Kerry (Glazer, the AAR’s third partner) gave me a more formal interview, and I got offered the job.

That’s a bit of a shift from Poland!

Exactly! So I was all ready to join when Martin invited me to invest in the business as he was buying it form the founder Lindy Payne and needed additional investment. I’d never thought about investing in a business but it felt like an opportunity not to spurn, and to be honest it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know what I was doing. Martin seemed to have it sorted, we had a loan from the bank, a loan from a VC and we had monthly board meetings where people seemed to know what they were talking about!

My job was simply to go around town meeting media agencies and explaining how we were going to help clients choose their media companies in a different way to how the media auditors were doing it – which at the time was basically a spreadsheet exercise. We were going to do it based on personality, chemistry, media smarts and ways of working . It was always fun going in to meet with people who had previously interviewed me for roles in their agencies and had turned me down!

But no doubt you were happier in this role…considering you’re still with the business 20 years on!

It was after about two years at AAR that it dawned on me that this was the first role where I actually felt that I knew what I was doing, that I was genuinely enjoying and that I think I was half-decent at. When I look back on my time as a media buyer, yeah, it was fun, but I didn’t really know what I was doing and I certainly wasn’t very good at it. Which is perhaps why I didn’t then have aspirations to be really senior in that space. Whereas with the AAR, finally, 18 years into my career, I found something that was right.

Work Paul loves #3

Hamlet ‘Photo Booth’

“Still makes me laugh today and a great example of sonic branding (it’s not a new thing you know).”

Part three: Life at the AAR, standout pitches and the importance of becoming an EOT…

So you’ve now had 22 years at AAR, in various roles, where do we start!?

I think you have to start with Kerry and Martin. They’d previously worked together at JWT – they had a good working and social relationship. And I was just this ‘meeja’ guy coming to join them. We weren’t ‘business’ people, but we were lucky enough to own this ‘special treasure’ that is AAR.

However it needed to move on and evolve as a business. And in that time working with Kerry and Martin we’ve laughed, we’ve cried (not me, of course), we’ve fought, we’ve supported each other. We’ve bitched about each other – behind each other’s back and to each other’s faces. Because in 22 years, that’s what happens. But that’s special. And at the time you probably don’t recognise how special it is.

From how you’ve built AAR, do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

People have said that to me before, but I really don’t consider myself to be an entrepreneur. I think the three of us are all quite conservative in our business approach. Pattison Horswell and Durden (PHD), they were entrepreneurs, Jenny Biggam and Mark Jarvis (co-founders of the7stars) are entrepreneurs, James Murphy and David Golding are serial entrepreneurs.

Then how do you make sure you keep adapting to stay relevant when you’ve been at a place so long?

I think the best example of that has come recently. About 18 months ago the three of us had a chat because we knew we weren’t the future of the AAR. We knew we needed somebody else to bring new impetus and fresh ideas. So we did two things that, for us, were seismic. One of which probably won’t have touched anyone outside of 26 Market Place (our offices), in that we became an EOT (an Employee Ownership Trust). The second was that we appointed Victoria Fox as Chief Executive to drive the company forward. She and her vision is the future.

Why’s it important to be an EOT?

An EOT is a vehicle created by the Government a few years ago, because lots of small businesses, which were often owner-managed or owner-founded, couldn’t find an exit strategy, so they closed their businesses and people got made redundant.

The EOT puts the ownership and long-term interest of the business in the hands of the employees, managed by a trust. Richer Sounds is the biggest recent example of an EOT and John Lewis and Partners is the oldest example of this kind of ownership structure.

And from a personal point of view, there are some very appealing tax advantages to the shareholders who sell to the EOT as well as to the staff  such as tax-free bonuses and protection of their long-term interests

Culturally, setting up an EOT was naturally in-keeping with our values. When we first heard about it we kept on looking for the catch, but there isn’t one. We think it’s perfect for AAR.

Then bringing Victoria on as your new Chief Executive has made a big impact too?

She’d been Chief Executive of Lida, she’s run businesses, she’s incredibly smart and has all the personal qualities that are so important to us. I’m really enthused by the move. I think in the short time we’ve worked together we’ve had a good working relationship and share similar values – so hopefully, if she’ll have me, we’ll continue working together for a while yet!

It’s a broad question I know, but what have been some of the standout moments from your time at the AAR?

I think Comparethemarket.com would have to be one thing I’d pick out when I think about the company’s achievements. We’ve worked with them for the last 15 years. We’ve done pitches, we’ve done commercial work, relationship management and behind-the-scenes we’ve been their consiglieres. There’s is a business that has been phenomenally successful. And Martin was actually in the room when ‘it’ happened. VCCP had the account back in the day, and the creative was pretty average, forgettable work (Adrian I’m sure you’d agree). So CTM called a pitch and asked us to help, at the agency’s suggestion. VCCP came back with the meerkats idea. It was one of those moments that changed the industry, and Martin was in the room when they pitched it. It’s been a privilege to work with them over the years.

And what are some of the other brands you’ve enjoyed work on?

I’ve just completed two projects for TripAdvisor, which has been fantastic. I worked with them a couple of years ago on a creative and media review for Europe, but then there was a change in leadership and they decided they needed to go a different way as they now had to ‘build a brand’. So they got back in touch again, and last year I spent about 8-10 weeks in the US working on various pitches and it was a joy to work with. Obviously they now have their challenges as a business but there’s a special spirit at the company and I hope they come through this pandemic with a future-facing successful business.

I talked about the ‘Meerkat moment’ that Martin had with Compare The Market –my moment was in the winning presentation for Trip Advisor from Mother New York. When we first met Mother, they told us how they measure creativity. It was a hand-drawn arm with the hair on the arm standing up.

‘Judge us by our work’ they said, ’If it makes the hairs on your arm stand up, we’ve done our job ’.

That’s lovely, and in the final pitch, when the big reveal happened – which actually these days in itself is quite rare to see – the hairs on all of our arms (and the back of our necks) stood up. I’m looking around the room at the clients and I can see them all leaning forward, getting excited.

So, are there sometimes moments when you just know ‘these guys have won’?

There are some moments when you do just know. But then you start thinking ‘will the client have the confidence to run with it’. With credit to Lindsay Nelson and Neela Pal at TripAdvisor, it looks like they have.

The work is due to break whenever we get back to travelling and that’s something I love about my job – when you see an ad six months down the line and you think ‘ I was in the room when that was presented and bought’. That’s cool.

Work Paul loves #4

John Smith’s Bitter ‘Mum’

The casting of Peter Kay, and his ‘mum’ together with a brilliant script made this the best ad in this great series.

Part four: The magnitude of calling a pitch, the art of pitch theatre and showing a client they’re worth it…

Changing agencies is a big deal for any brand, but for some, it’s a monumental moment. What’s it like working with someone like Sainsbury’s, when they’d previously been with AMV for 35 years?

35 years is a long time isn’t it? And you do have to recognise it when you’re running the pitch, but I’m old and ugly enough to deal with it! Our job, in those moments, is to stress-test the client’s thinking, it’s to keep them honest, it’s to remind them of their brief, it’s to remind them of their ambition, and it’s to give them the reassurance that there’s a reason that they’ve got to a point where they’re making a monumental decision. Moving agencies cannot just be a snap decision where the client decides ‘I quite fancy a change’, and to be fair, the CMO’s with whom I’ve worked are respectful of the relationship they have with their agencies

For Sainsbury’s, leaving AMV was clearly both corporately and personally a significant decision. As you know, W+K  won the pitch, and I remember being in the final presentation, and could see from the clients’ thought processes ‘shit, they really are going to leave AMV’.

You could see them mentally computing that. You knew it was a moment. And you feel a sense of responsibility. Because what you don’t want is six months later for the new relationship to fail. Thankfully, four years on the relationship is still strong.

Let’s talk about pitch theatre. Have you seen occasions where it’s really worked?

I’ll give you examples both big and small. Firstly, we were lucky enough to work with Four Seasons Hotel & Resorts. They came to us because they’re ‘Stars and Stripes’ through and through, so they have North America nailed. But for Europe and Asia – ‘ROW’ as our American cousins like to refer to us! – they needed something that didn’t have a ‘Stars and Stripes’ filter on the world. Hence a UK based consultant working on a thoroughly American brand.

The brief was simple; Four Seasons was always the standard bearer of luxury in hotels, but the likes of Mandarin Oriental and Ritz Carlton had caught up and the company needed to separate itself from the competition and re-establish its pre-eminence amongst luxury hotels.

We’re in the boardroom at Four Season’s HQ for the final presentations and it’s what you’d expect –understated luxury with a lot of art on the walls. There were 35 clients in the room; the core team, the wider team, property owners and members of the company management.  Everyone was excited to see what the agencies had come up with.

TBWA was one of the pitching agencies and Toto Ellis, the lead strategist, stood up. The room went quiet, and he took a pen from his pocket. He said, “this is a pen from your Four Seasons hotel in London. You can tell that because it’s got your logo on top of it.” He took the pen apart and laid the three elements of the pen on the table in front of him.

He then did the same thing with pens from the Ritz Carlton in Paris and the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. And  in each case it was exactly the same pen, just with a different logo. Because they all buy their pens from the ‘Pens R Us’ supplier who supplies all the hotel chains.

Toto explained that that was the problem. The hotel’s audience saw all luxury hotels as the same, and the Four Seasons wasn’t helping itself differentiate, as evidence by a simple ‘freebie’ pen. His voice was quiet and calm and everyone was leaning in as Toto announced that TBWA was going to change all that.

It was the way he set up the insight, the atmosphere that he built. To be honest he had people hooked with that opening in such a way that he could have sat down and they’d probably have given the agency the business.

But of course they then went through and spent two hours showing how they’d differentiate the brand. As a piece of pitch theatre, it understood humans, it understood people, it understood emotion. It’s the Maya Angelou quote, ‘people will remember how you’ve made them feel, not always what you’ve said to them’.

So that’s a masterclass in doing pitch theatre with only a pen!… but there are bigger set-pieces you’ve seen work too?

Indeed! The other one is a UK example and a bit more recent. It was BBH. Now, BBH had been Barclays’ agency for 17 years. Stephen Vowles had just come in as the new CMO of Barclays and he and I had worked together previously. We discussed whether he should pitch the business or not, and he said ‘I want to give them an opportunity, but because of the direction of travel that Barclays is going, we have to make sure that we’ve got the right partners in place’.

So it wasn’t a commentary on what the agency had done before, it was a question of whether they were the right partner going forward.

But still, when a marquee piece of business goes up for pitch, it can be won and lost. Indeed  the stats will show you that incumbents only win around 30% of the time.

So it’s the final pitch presentation, and we’re due at BBH at 9am on Monday morning, having been told ‘don’t arrive before then, please’. We get to the agency, Monday morning, 9am; we’re met on the ground floor and head up to the agency’s reception, which, if you know BBH’s office, overlooks the rest of the agency. And there’s no-one around.

The pitch team comes and meets us and says ‘this is the most important pitch, not just for the seven of us in the pitch team, but for the whole agency. And whilst it’s easy to say that, we want to demonstrate it. So, the only people in the whole agency this morning, are the 12 of us – the pitch team and the clients. Everyone else in the agency have been given the morning off. Because all of their energy and attention externally is on helping us, and we want you to recognise that, for BBH, in this moment, you are the most important people on whom we are focussing the attention of all the agency.

We sat downstairs at the bottom of the atrium, with all the work up around us, and spent a couple of hours as the team took us through their pitch. We literally had the agency to ourselves. As one of those ‘making you feel special’ moments, it’s hard to beat.