OMG’S Philippa Brown on lead­ing through tur­bu­lent times, putting clients first and chair­ing Me­dia360

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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 Univer­sity, 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”, “datadriven” 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 Cr­m­driven 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 binge­watched 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 Is­bastyle 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.”

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