OMG's Philippa Brown faces turbulence head-on

OMG's Philippa Brown faces turbulence head-on

Omnicom's media division has streamlined to deal with uncertain times, Philippa Brown tells Gideon Spanier.

Philippa Brown was partying at Glastonbury when Britain voted for Brexit and "most people were in tears" afterwards, she recalls. But anyone who reckons "there’s never been such a turbulent or uncertain time" is wrong.

"Uncertainty is nothing new," she declares, thinking back to her move from IPC Media to become chief executive of Omnicom Media Group UK in 2007. Then, the iPhone had just launched, Tony Blair was stepping down, Northern Rock was going bust and the worst ad recession in decades was about to start.

"Turbulence is the new norm and leadership is about leading through that turbulence," Brown says – a lesson she learned from Omnicom Univer-sity, the company’s management training course in the US.

And, in the wake of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election win, she warns: "If you’re waiting for things to calm down, forget it."

Brown has been thinking about change and uncertainty because she is chairing Media360, Campaign’s annual conference, in Brighton this week. The theme is "transform and unite", reflecting the challenges facing the media industry in the face of technological and political upheaval.

A clear strategy

The key to coping with turbulence is "having a clear plan and a clear strategy", Brown believes. And when events such as Brexit "don’t go the way you think they’re going to go", you adapt.

She likes how Mark Zuckerberg has a ten-year vision for Facebook. He can’t have anticipated that fake news would become a problem and he has to make changes, Brown says, "but it’s not going to stop him from achieving his vision of connecting the whole world – it’s just that how he gets there might be slightly different".

For Brown, the daughter of a former Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer, it is hard to overstate the transformative impact of new technology over the past decade. "It is empowering," she says, reflecting on how much we have come to rely on our smartphones and keep them physically close to us. "They’re like lovers."

Back in 2007, only a small proportion of OMG’s staff worked in digital – "the geek people", Brown jokes. Now half of UK adspend is digital, she has hired "hundreds of data people" and OMG has moved from planning and buying to a "much broader", "data-driven" organisation that makes content and creates experiences.

"Clients want those services," Brown says, in a nod to an accounts list that includes John Lewis, Volkswagen, Disney, Google and Apple.

Brown arrived to create OMG as a parent for Omnicom’s media agencies and has doubled staff from 770 to 1,800. The past year was especially busy as OMG focused on three global networks – OMD, PHD and new creation Hearts & Science – and disposed of smaller parts of the group. Brown has centralised much of OMG in the new headquarters in Bankside, shut M2M and sold stakes in Goodstuff Communications and Talon.

Industry watchers have been waiting to see what impact Hearts & Science can make after the data- and CRM-driven shop took the US by storm last year. So far, there has been no noise in London while Hearts & Science pitches for Procter & Gamble. Brown says she is "highly ambitious" for the agency and "very confident in its future".

She likes how Omnicom, the world’s second-biggest ad group, has built its business largely through organic growth, rather than expanding through acquisition like WPP.

OMG’s biggest UK win last year was VW – part of a global coup by PHD – but there have been no other major recent ones. "It’s not easy to grow," Brown concedes, "but there are different ways to grow." Selling new services to existing clients can be better than "chasing" new business – that’s why client retention is her "number one priority" for OMG, which reports more than £2bn a year in UK billings.

Brown has shown steel. OMG pulled its money from Channel 5 in 2014 in a trading dispute that contributed to the closure of the TV sales house, she shut M2M after it lost Lidl and Paddy Power and, most recently, her team forced Sainsbury’s to reopen its media review after complaining that the supermarket didn’t run the process fairly when it moved its account.

She must employ plenty of lawyers. "I could have been a lawyer," Brown, who studied accountancy at the University of Manchester, chuckles and confesses to having just binge-watched legal drama The Good Wife.

Tough decisions

Some observers felt Brown could have tried harder to save M2M, which was 13 years old and had a "made-to-measure" ethos (hence the name) that was all about serving clients. M2M had "some great people", she replies, but "I don’t think the proposition was future-facing" and it "didn’t really exist outside the UK".

Brown adds that "clients get it" when a tough decision has to be made, such as coming off Channel 5. "We are trusted advisors," she explains. "We’re a client-first business."

Omnicom, like other big ad groups, hasn’t signed up to ISBA’s media agency framework agreement that demands more transparency but Brown says: "We’ll work with whatever contract the client wants us to work with." 

Not all advertisers want an ISBA-style contract because it can be "way too over-complex", Brown adds, and "it’s a good thing" that marketers are updating their agreements because "the world’s changed". 

And she has a similar message for traditional media owners that are struggling in the face of the Google/Facebook duopoly: "Make yourself relevant, make sure you’re offering what clients want." She makes clear that newspapers should try harder to set up a joint sales house.

Brown hasn’t been tempted to go back to a media owner – there were rumours that Sky Media wooed her a few years ago – because she has a "fab" team and Omnicom "is a good fit with me". She sees a big part of her role as mentoring – particularly women, who make up half the OMG board. "I love coaching," Brown says, explaining how she helped new PHD UK chief executive Verica Djurdjevic structure a plan for her first 60 days and her KPIs. "I’m a big planner."

Claudine Collins, managing director of MediaCom UK, says: "She’s focused but doesn’t take herself too seriously and knows how to have fun. She’s a class act." Anna Hill, Disney’s chief marketing officer and general manager of Disneymedia+ for UK and Ireland, says: "As the leader of our relationship, Philippa is passionate, always accessible and very responsive." While Brown delegates, she "brings new ideas to the table and constantly challenges, which we like", Hill adds.

As for Brown, what keeps her motivated is that there’s "constant learning" on the job: "I’ve been in the business 30 years and I’m learning every day."

The Lowdown

Age 51
Lives Fulham, London
Family Husband Kevin, daughter Polly (aged 16) and son Joey (aged 13)
Favourite media Just finished The Good Wife and started Gilmore Girls
Favourite ad The Lego Movie ad break
One thing you don’t know about me I went to the first comprehensive school in the UK, The Regis School in Wolverhampton

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