The annual Financial Mail AdFocus Awards presentation was truly a red letter day for the media agency world: PHD Media SA won not only the Media Agency of the Year award but also took the overall prize of the night, Agency of the Year!
It is no mean feat for a relatively small media agency (ranked joint eighth in RECMA’s Overall Activity) to best the likes of FCB Johannesburg (Large Advertising Agency), Avatar (Medium Advertising Agency), Openco (Small Advertising Agency), Grid Worldwide (Specialist Agency), Hellocomputer (Digital Agency), Ogilvy PR Johannesburg (Public Relations Agency) and Burson-Marsteller Africa (African Agency Network).
Having spent most of my working life in media agencies, I wholeheartedly concurred with Wayne Bishop, MD of PHD Johannesburg, when he said to me that this was proof that media agencies could finally stop seeing themselves as mere “procurers of time and space”; they have moved into a sexier world of content distribution and communication strategy.
It was exciting to hear from him that PHD’s competitive media agencies had been enthusiastic in expressing their congratulations, understanding that their winning the Agency of the Year Award, did a “category job” for media agencies overall.
It was only the second year that this overall award has been made. After the judging of the individual categories, the top two agencies in each, together with any agencies that scored within a defined band progressed to the overall award judging. This required the jury to discuss the merits of the submissions for this overall award, before finally scoring the category.
The process of secret scoring, overseen by by Nola de Klerk of Deloitte’s, audit partner to the Awards, was so tightly run that the results were a surprise even to the AdFocus jury chairperson, Craig Page-Lee. As he pointed out, “This award has definitely presented a shift in expectation that one of the ‘big’ creative agencies will always win… hopefully all other agency types take this as a signal that anything is possible – if you put the right effort and commitment in though.”
Talking to me about the judging process, Craig observed that “agencies in South Africa are beginning to genuinely understand the need for integrated communication solutions – whether imposed on them by their clients … or just out of absolute belief that this is the right way for the industry.”
In response to my devil’s advocate question of how a media agency could have sexier stories to tell than a creative one, he explained that the adoption of the integrated approach meant that “the story can originate anywhere and can be told by anyone. A media agency has therefore as much an opportunity as does a creative agency”.
There is an art to winning awards, and much of it lies in the crafting of compelling submissions. Craig assured me that, “The story that PHD told was far superior than many of the creative agency submissions”.” While PHD clearly made the most of the case studies “to demonstrate their story-telling capability, their approach to solving a clients’ business issues, their creative execution or thinking and their ability to influence ROI on client spend”, Craig was particularly impressed with the way PHD utilised the the agency motivation letter.
While this is limited to 1 000 words across all entry categories, he pointed out that it “does, in essence, provide every agency with the same ‘story telling’ opportunity – or limitation – depending how they see or use this opportunity”. PHD set up a compelling story from the start by referencing a real story, that of Sebastian Coe addressing the 117th session of the International Olympics Committee.
Floating on sunbeams
Later when I talked to Anne Dearnaley, founder and group MD, she confessed that the team was “still floating on sunbeams about being named Overall Agency of the Year!” The PHD submission had pointed out that it had failed to win the Media Agency title despite eight attempts, which spurred me to ask Anne what had made this year different.
Her view was that the achievement was actually the product of years of establishing credibility and building a track record. As she put it: “Eight years of success is hard to ignore, and double digit revenue growth for nine straight years is hard to ignore, and big client acquisitions and retention is hard to ignore, and it all came together this year.”
Anne and her team like to refer to themselves as an ‘un-real’ agency to suggest that they can’t really be “compared to traditional ‘real’ agencies” with the traditional divides of planning and buying. They stress collaboration among themselves without division, seeing themselves as content distribution specialists. A key component of PHD’s success is dynamic staff who can provide insight and solutions in every possible foreseeable area.
Anne admits to having been fortunate in “that since we started our business, we have managed to attract very good people, and combined with our success in the industry, these two components continue to attract more good people”. Both Anne and Wayne stress that they try very hard to hire people who we believe be a good match to the culture and work ethic they have established. Wayne was frank in explaining to me how his involvement with industry training provides him with a valuable means of scouting new talent. He is religious in tracking the career progress of talented youngsters, and the company ensures that its involvement with industry events, serves to build its brand.
A perfect cultural match
Anne says that they provide “an open-source office environment”, and staff have the freedom to do their work where and when they want as long as deadlines are met and their choice doesn’t impact on anyone else.
Being only too familiar with many of my media colleagues’ comments about the misery of working for internationally owned agencies, it was a pleasant change to hear Anne speak of the opportunity to partner with PHD as “too good to miss”, elaborating that when she met with Mike Cooper (PHD Worldwide CEO) they “both knew instantaneously that the fit between both our businesses was a perfect cultural match…they have been the most amazing partners we could ever have wished for”.
How enviable it is to have international partners who trust that the local agency the local landscape best, “letting them do their thing”, while always providing help and support. Both Anne and Wayne were particularly enthusiastic about PHD’s media tools being a massive advantage to the business. ‘Source’, for example, facilitates collaboration in real-time with offices around the world. Of course, part local ownership ensures that the management remain invested in the business and makes for a more equal relationship.
I asked both Anne and Wayne what advice they would give clients who wanted to get the best out of their media agency. Once again they both had similar views: Clients should consider their agencies as partners not just as out-sourced suppliers and should let their agency people do their work and give them the freedom to work their magic.
The final question I put to Anne was about future goals: Her reply was simple – “We want to continue blazing a trail!” She continued, “We’re really enjoying what we do, and we have great clients who trust us with their business, so we want to continue doing great work and pushing our own limits. The landscape is evolving so fast… our goal is to always remain future focused. Agility has been a factor driving our success… we need to ensure we are always relevant and we always hold value in managing our clients’ future”.
I have no doubt that PHD will do so with aplomb.
Britta Reid is an independent media consultant.
And in case you hadn’t read about all the winners, here they are:
The winners are:
AGENCY OF THE YEAR
PHD MEDIA SA
LARGE ADVERTISING AGENCY OF THE YEAR
(Finalists: FCB Johannesburg, Joe Public, M&C Saatchi Abel, Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town)
MEDIUM ADVERTISING AGENCY OF THE YEAR
(Finalists: Avatar, Havas Worldwide, Net#work BBDO, OFyt and The Jupiter Drawing Room Cape Town)
SMALL ADVERTISING AGENCY OF THE YEAR
(Finalists: FoxP2 Cape Town, House of Brave, Openco and Riverbed)
MEDIA AGENCY OF THE YEAR
PHD MEDIA SA
(Finalists: Alphabet Soup, Initiative Media, Mediology, PHD Media and The MediaShop)
SPECIALIST AGENCY OF THE YEAR
(Finalists: Actuate, Demographica, Grid and Playmakers)
DIGITAL AGENCY OF THE YEAR
(Finalists: Hellocomputer and Native VML)
PUBLIC RELATIONS AGENCY OF THE YEAR
OGILVY PR JOHANNESBURG
(Finalists: Burson-Marsteller Africa, Engage Joe Public and Ogilvy PR Johannesburg)
AFRICAN AGENCY NETWORK OF THE YEAR
PARTNERSHIP OF THE YEAR (award proudly sponsored by The Observatory)
THE HARDY BOYS AND SA HOME LOANS
(Finalists: FCB Johannesburg and Toyota, King James and Santam, M&C Saatchi Abel and Heineken, and The Hardy Boys and SA Home Loans)
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD (award proudly sponsored by Liberty Group)
INDUSTRY LEADER OF THE YEAR (award proudly sponsored by House of Brave)
STUDENT OF THE YEAR (award proudly sponsored by Nedbank)
CARINA BONSE, Red & Yellow School of Logic and Magic, Cape Town