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Interview: PHD's Mike Florence on time machines and Milton Keynes

03 Jan 2020  |  Michaela Jefferson 
Interview: PHD's Mike Florence on time machines and Milton Keynes

Michaela Jefferson speaks with one of the UK's top media planners about his ambitious new plans - and the frustrations helping to drive them

From the other side of a small, white desk in his London office, Mike Florence is explaining why he sometimes thinks of the media and advertising industry as being a bit like Milton Keynes.

"We've just dumped it in, and it's grown organically. There's bloody roundabouts everywhere. And what are you going to do, stick on another roundabout?"

It's a good question - what should the future of adland look like? Do agencies and startups continue to expand on a model that already exists, or is it time to rip up the roads and start something new?

Florence is chief strategy officer at PHD UK, one of the top media agencies in the country. The agency recorded billings of more than £493 million in 2018, with clients including Sainsburys, Volkswagen, HSBC and The Guardian.

Globally, the network employs more than 6,000 people in over 100 offices, and is one of three agency networks to make up Omnicom Media Group.

Florence joined the ad industry in 2000 as a planner at BBJ (now Vizeum). After stints at Carat, TBWA, and eight years as creative director at sister agency Manning Gottlieb OMD, Florence joined PHD as head of planning in 2014.

Just two years later, he was promoted to UK CSO. After cycling through a few options in search of an answer that wouldn't make him sound like a "wanker", he says that this promotion was the proudest moment of his career so far, and a goal he had aspired towards for some time.

But another option for his proudest moment which didn't make the final cut was having been consistently recognised as one of the best media planners in the UK, in part for his work introducing rhythm-based planning to PHD. The methodology helps plan campaigns in sync with business, cultural, and personal trends, so advertisers can reach audiences at the right times without going against the grain of their natural behaviour.

Essentially, rhythms puts the needs of the audience first - which is something Florence believes some parts of the industry have fallen out of touch with.

Quoting Howard Luck Gossage, an advertising innovator and iconoclast during the 'Mad Men' era, Florence says: "The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad."

That statement is more relevant now than it ever has been before, he adds.

"What really frustrates me is when teams drink the Kool-aid of their clients, or their client believes too much in their own product and they don't realise that it's actually really difficult to get somebody to attend to their message," he says.

"You can't see the forest through the trees, because you become so close to what it is that you're doing that you forget that nobody's actually listening. Lots of people put campaigns out there as though people are just waiting - and I find that astounding."

As part of that problem, adland's rapid move towards activation marketing over the past few years has created a "fixation on the plumbing of a campaign" (i.e. the route an advertiser takes to reach consumers).

"It's as though people are waiting at the other end to turn on the tap and pour themselves a glass of water. But what does it taste like? Are they thirsty? Do they even want a glass of water?"

"People have become so fixated on the plumbing that they've forgotten about the actual audience at the end of it."

But this is just one symptom of an industry which, in Florence's words, has got itself "in a bit of a pickle".

On one hand, there are large-scale, legacy clients who have over-relied on top of the funnel show pieces in the past and have failed to capitalise on programmatic activation-based advertising.

On the other hand, many challenger, digital-first brands are now understanding that they cannot continue to grow through performance and activation advertising alone.

Mobile-only bank Starling, for example, has said it is looking to grow its market share by steering focus towards brand equity rather than performance marketing, following the "massive" success of its recent TV and outdoor campaign. Rival bank Monzo made similar moves earlier in 2019.

That should be a good thing for the media landscape - if digital-first brands recognise that they need to find a balance between activation and brand building advertising, more adspend should be siphoned off back into the pockets of legacy media like TV, print, and cinema, going some way to even the playing field with the likes of Facebook and Google.

However, according to Florence, snags are being hit when it comes to the clients' briefs. "They are hooked on this new language of data."

Florence asks if I remember the first live advert ever successfully broadcast on British TV. It was an ad for Honda, called 'The Power of Dreams', and it broadcast on Channel 4 in 2008.

The ad saw 18 sky divers launch themselves out of a plane and successfully spell out Honda's name in the sky over Madrid. They had just over three minutes to successfully make the jump.

"It went gangbusters," Florence says. "People want those sorts of ads these days - the real show stoppers - because of how hard it is to get attention. You need these magnetic moments, something that really pulls people in."

But those ideas hit a wall when clients ask to know the exact ROI they can expect off the back of them.

"So what you're telling me is that you need me to build a time machine," Florence laughs. "You need me to go into the future, find out how that campaign did, and come back and tell you what the results were. And you want them today."

It's a surprise then when Florence suddenly adds: "By the way, we're building that time machine."

It's his next project, he says - working with PHD UK's head of discovery, Jeremy Pounder, to find a way to work out what the potential return on a magnetic moment idea could be.

"But until I've worked out a way of talking about creative, big brand ideas using the same language [as activation]... In these conditions, it's like you're talking a foreign language. Clients don't understand it."

Florence doesn't hesitate to admit that the problem is one media agencies have helped to create, lured in by the ease of selling in ideas off the back of data. And it's a media agency responsibility to find ways to fix that, he says.

At PHD, part of tackling that brand/activation balancing act in the long term has been making the decision to split its head of planning role into two.

Whereas Florence considers himself a traditional planner - specialising in big ideas at the top of the funnel - by the time he had been promoted from head of planning to CSO, activation and performance planning had become hugely important to clients.

"A one-dimensional brand-only head of planning isn't setting us up properly for the future," he says - and vice versa. So Rebecca Burchnall and Andrew McLean were both brought on as joint heads of planning - Burchnall from a performance background, McLean from a brand background.

So far the decision has been a success, Florence says, with the two working well together and learning from each other despite the obvious rivalries.

"But the most important thing for me is that the team immediately below them are now uber planners, because they had access to information about performance-based planning as close to them as all that information about brand-based planning," he adds.

If it's shit and it doesn't work, we take the hit"

"So the future generations of PHD planners will be all rounded. And as an agency, it allowed me to signal that performance is as important as brand."

Now, he's looking at where to take the role next. Joint roles are difficult in the long term, so he says its very unlikely that the pair will work together forever.

"And the world's changed again, actually. I think we might need to innovate again," he adds - though he says he isn't sure what that would mean right now.

Another potential change for PHD could be to move to an outcomes-based remuneration model. That's something the agency would love to do in the future, Florence says.

"We know our ideas work. We believe in the power of big ideas. We want to drive disproportionate growth.

"If it's shit and it doesn't work, we take the hit, we lose the money, we work for free and they don't lose anything. If it does work, we take a share of the profits, which seems fair."

Florence claims that one of the best pieces of work he has ever worked on whilst at PHD was one the agency was willing to pay for itself.

Coinciding with the first solar eclipse in the UK for 16 years, PHD launched a campaign for biscuit-brand Oreo which involved "eclipsing" the front cover the the Sun newspaper, and specially created digital outdoor sites which used the image of an Oreo to re-create the course of the eclipse in real-time.

According to PHD, 20 million people saw the #OreoEclipse campaign on that day.

The campaign didn't come from a brief, but was a proactive pitch from the agency to its client. According to Florence, Mondelez International - the FMCG giant which owns the Oreo brand - was a client they knew "inside out".

"We had so much conviction that if they didn't do it, we were going to pay to do it ourselves. We were going to use our own PHD marketing budget, sacrifice awards that year and spend that money on actually delivering the campaign ourselves. Because we believed in it that much," Florence says.

We had so much conviction that if they didn't do it, we were going to pay to do it ourselves"

Fortunately, Mondelez loved the idea. But according to Florence, the campaign demonstrates PHD's faith in the strength of its ideas, and the kind of ideas that can come from a true partnership with a client. An outcomes-based remuneration model would facilitate those kinds of partnerships, he says.

"That is the future model, and one I think we'll get to eventually", though for the moment, it's a long way off.

Returning to the idea of time machines, I ask Florence if there is anything he'd change in his career if he had the chance. He says no - except maybe some outfits.

"It's a bit of a hackneyed saying, but you do learn from your mistakes." Employing wrong people in the past made him a better hirer, he says; working in an agency with a bad culture has made him believe in the importance of culture more than anything.

So what about looking ahead to the future?

"The media agency of the future doesn't exist yet," Florence says. "The structures are hackneyed and old, because all we ever do is add on, or we do marginal innovation. We've got start ups, we've got performance, we've got digital, we've got these old scout agencies like ourselves."

It's a bit like Milton Keynes, he adds. "Actually, what you might need to do is to ask: 'Why don't we start another town?'"

But beyond time machines, new remuneration models, and developing uber planners, Florence says he's not quite sure what the future of PHD - or any agency - should look like at the moment.

"But the idea is to turn PHD into the agency that doesn't exist... yet."


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