Close Up

PHD’s Field of Dreams


“We have grown by 87 per cent this year,” says, PHD managing director Elda Choucair. “We are almost doubling the agency. We knew we would grow, but until you see the numbers you do not realise by how much and the true scale of the growth.”

As would be expected in such circumstances, Choucair is in a good mood. A very good mood in fact. Such is her sense of professional achievement that we’re in Beirut together eating sushi. It’s early afternoon, the heat and dust have forced us inside, and we appear to be the only customers at Tsu in Achrafieh.

“The reality is that this growth is the end result of something that started maybe four years ago,” she says, before quoting a line from Field of Dreams. “There was a realisation that if we continued to do what we were doing we would continue to be what we were. And what we were was a PHD that was an alternative agency to OMD that Omnicom Media Group invested in and launched across the world. But the reality was we remained the underdog, or the secondary choice – the smaller partner. And in our industry big is what matters.

“So we sat down as a team and said ‘okay, where do we want to go, what is the vision, how do we realise it?’ I drew up a map, the team contributed to it, and Elie [Khouri, CEO of Omnicom Media Group] of course was always there to advise and to guide. I can not say that when we did this we knew where we would get to, but I think we thought ‘where should we place our bet?’ And one of those [bets] was investing in an agency of the future – the future being digital.”

Where PHD has arrived is unprecedented in its regional history. A streak of new business wins, including the National Food Products Company, Pizza Hut and SC Johnson, has led to the growth that Choucair refers to so far this year. A much higher growth figure is likely come December, while the agency’s growth is from an already significant base. The Pizza Hut account alone covers all digital duties for the brand, with the agency tasked with helping the restaurant chain capitalise on digital technologies and opportunities via programmatic buying, paid search services and more traditional online services. Such wins have been satisfying for Choucair and PHD, which has put digital at the forefront of the agency’s agenda from the very beginning.

“There was always a lot of emphasis on digital,” says Choucair, who has been the agency’s managing director since 2008. “The other part was building a culture that embraces collaboration, that embraces innovation. A culture where everybody realises their job is not to do planning or to do buying or to do admin or finance. Their job is to make PHD a winner. It was always a bigger purpose and their job was to deliver on that purpose. So what you see today is not by luck.”

On the back of such growth, is the agency hiring, strengthening and opening new offices?

“All of the things you said,” replies Choucair with a smile. By now we are surrounded by half-empty plates and the remnants of a sizeable meal. We are sitting at a long wooden table picking at what is left of the sashimi and uramaki. All is being washed down with elaborate cocktails served in bamboo tumblers.

“We have been on a hiring spree for a while now but it’s been very difficult,” she admits. “I’m quite disappointed with the talent that is available in the market. We would filter through 71 candidates to maybe end up with one who we were half convinced could do the job. It is quite painful. I never really realised how serious the problem with talent was. The people who have grown with the company the past four years are today the backbone of the company. They were homegrown people who believed in PHD. People who learnt the fundamentals of planning, the fundamentals of the business based on what the brand provides. But we are almost doubling the agency and we are operating on the same level of staff that we had last year.

“It was never the priority that PHD should be the biggest,” she adds. “The priority was and is to be the best. Every client at PHD has to feel that they are the only client at PHD. And that is a very hard target. Because as you grow it becomes even more difficult to give attention and focus to clients, no matter what size they are. It is a challenge to continue to be who you used to be. But at the same time, how do I make sure that we are prepared every single day to take our clients to the next big thing?”

Indeed, how do you? What is the priority for investment of any agency? How do you know which trends to follow?

“There is nothing I am going to say that’s going to be a discovery, but people talk about programmatic and digital and data and a lot of agencies are probably pitching a very similar kind of product. That is all good. But what really matters is: how do you make that a reality? The deployment, for the first time, becomes more important than the strategy itself. Because of the strategy and the vision, everyone can go online and see where the future should be somehow. But how you get there, that is the tricky part.

“On a global level PHD is investing even more in advancing Source [PHD’s global, gamified proprietary planning operating system], which I think is one of the key reasons for PHD’s success globally as well as locally. We call it ‘game changing planning’. There is a continuous effort to develop Source. It gives us structure, it gives us focus, it contains people who know a lot about media planning and innovation and it is a framework. No matter what your capabilities are, there is a guidance that it provides, and no matter what piece of work comes out of it, it is solid.”

Why is it game changing?

“Because it is based on marketing science, it is not based just on media planning. Econometrics, behavioural science, all these sciences that actually affect everybody’s job in the industry of communication and marketing today. They have based this tool on that science. And it connects all employees in the network globally, so you are not just accessing the team in Dubai, you are accessing everybody. And it is completely gamified based on your contribution, your ideas, your efforts, how you help others, how they help you, so the whole motivation is to be involved and to be involved at a whole different level. There is this whole big drive to collaborate with each other.”

Between us Choucair and I have almost ploughed through an entire packet of cigarettes. “We will finish the pack, then we will leave,” she says, before the conversation veers off at a tangent towards art and emotion, the cult British film Withnail & I, Yemeni-style barbecued fish, and Choucair’s own childhood.

PHD opened its first regional office in Dubai in 2005, before creating a team for Abu Dhabi in 2008 and opening an office in Riyadh in 2010. Plans for further expansion are being finalised, says Choucair, before being interrupted by Rachel Maher, the agency’s marketing director. She has been eating but not drinking. ‘Beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council’ is all that will be divulged for now, says Maher in response to queries over countries and markets.

“You know, I feel relieved more than satisfied,” says Choucair a short while later. “Relieved that things have paid off more than ‘yes, I’ve made it’. It’s not like that. It’s more a celebration that the effort did not go to waste. We’ve had an attitude over the past four years where we took our business personally. Our losses were personal, our wins were personal, everything was so serious, although we’re not a serious bunch of people. Quite the opposite. But we took everything to heart.

“I might be a good driver, but if the car doesn’t have four wheels it won’t go anywhere. One of the key things was to have the right people in the company who believe in the same thing. I can not tell you that the success we have had is because of one thing or one person. If something happens to me and I go away tomorrow, the ship will continue to move in the same direction at the same speed and with the same passion. That is what I am most proud of.”