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Handing over the reins: Louise Bond reflects on years with PHD Group following move to chairperson

Following Louise Bond’s move from CEO to chairperson of PHD New Zealand, we sit down with her to talk about her decision to step down, where her journey with PHD began and how the group is moving into the future.

By Erin McKenzie | December 4, 2018 | features

After nearly 20 years at the helm of PHD, meeting Louise Bond no longer means paying a visit to the agency’s offices in Mt Eden, it’s now over a coffee in a Mt Eden café.

Bond announced her move to chairperson in September and last month the plan came into effect. However, a musical-chairs-of-sorts in PHD Group’s senior leadership team in July was a sign she’d already made the decision in December last year to step down.

“The one thing I wanted to do was leave PHD – and I’m not leaving completely­ – in as good of a shape as it can possibly be. From my perspective, a business that goes from strength to strength is much more of a legacy than a business that fails when its leadership leaves.”

She explains a business with continued success shows the depth of capability and expertise so she has been “diligent in planning [her] exit”.

The shift saw Lee-Ann Morris move from a general management position to PHD's managing director, Christophe Spencer move from general manager of digital to PHD’s chief technology officer, and Dallas Gurney take on a new role as the managing director of Spark PR & Activate.

Nikki Grafton also stepped up from managing director to the newly created PHD Group position of people and culture director. With Bond’s departure, Grafton is now acting CEO.

However, while Bond has let go of the agency reins, she’s still along for the ride. From April next year, she will work with PHD in a new capacity by offering support, and while it’s not yet known exactly what her role will look like, she says it will initially be eight hours a week.

Back to the beginning

Bond’s history with PHD goes back to 1999 when she, Richard Fenner and Derek Lindsay came together to form media agency Spark. After 10 years in the industry, having worked at Clemenger Group and WPP, she was ready for some independence in her decision making and having her own agency would offer that.

Right from the beginning, it was all go, with two sizeable foundation clients, Unileaver and DB, coming on board.

Shortly after, in 2000 Vodafone was added to the books and the growth continued.

“Three or four years in we were the biggest billing media agency in the market. We hadn’t anticipated that,” says Bond.

However, she does point out at the time, media agencies were few and far between.

The media agency was followed by the launch of Spark PR & Activate in 2000 and later PHDiQ in 2007.

It was also about 2007 that Spark, which came to be Spark PHD, was sold to the Omnicom Media Group and joined the PHD global network. Today, it's known as PHD Media.

Throughout the sale and rebranding, the client list has continued to grow and today includes many local and multinational companies and, when reflecting on what she is proud of, it’s the longevity of some of these relationships.

“They have put faith in us and the evolution of our business. Some of those clients have been with us for a very long time while we have evolved.”

From independence to a global support network

Reflecting on the formation of Spark, Bond says she and her partners went into it with an excitement to give it a go, however, they had been advised to have an “exit strategy” and the acquisition by Omnicom Group would prove to be that.

Beyond opening a door for Bond’s partners to leave, it allowed them to realise their investment and see the support of a multinational network in the face of a changing industry.

Giving the examples of planning framework, research and book production, she says the network of over 4,000 staff in 80 offices worldwide has collateral available that independents don’t.

“Trying to develop your own planning tools locally – which is something the multinationals on the whole do really well ­– is hard to do.”

When NZ Marketing surveyed 33 local marketers about what they look for in a media agency – for Agency Perception research – only 18 percent said ‘links to international resources’.

‘Relevant strategic thinking’ was the most important, with 79 percent of marketers selecting it.

While Bond names a number of benefits to being part of a multinational network, she does point out there are pros and cons to both being in a network and being an independent.

An example she gives is the need for multinationals to report numbers every month and work within the guidelines of a network, while independents are free to make decisions based on what they want to do.

However, she does point out that doesn’t stop PHD Group from being flexible, agile and willing to take calculated risks.

Taking a minute to look beyond New Zealand shores at how the local industry compares to those overseas, she suggests an area for improvement and that is its recognition of creativity’s value.

Specifying the observation is based on the industry she works in, she says there is not enough knowledge about the return of investment on creativity, which can be profitable for businesses.

“I think from a business perspective in the sector we are in that is something that does need to be championed because it is hugely valuable.

“In this world of technology and automation, I think not losing sight of the value of creativity at a business level and government level is hugely important.”

Talking about technology and automation raises the discussion about the greatest change Bond has seen over her career.

Marketing automation is more sophisticated than ever before and agencies and clients are learning as they go.

Given the industry’s evolution, Bond says she couldn’t have foreseen the agency would be what it is today but more important than what’s changed is what hasn’t.

“One of the things Simon Bird [group strategy director] always says to me is what’s as important as what’s changed is what hasn’t changed. The world around us is changing but humans aren’t – our brains haven’t.”

Because of this, she says the fundamentals of marketing haven’t changed.

Culture is key

Another thing Bond says hasn’t changed over the past 30 years is the relentless nature of the industry.

She says it doesn’t get any easier and while work-life balance is an ongoing conversation and PHD has put policies in place, such as no work emails after 6.30pm unless absolutely urgent, that positive behavior does slip.

Noting that she’s not criticizing the industry or clients, she says staff have to be diligent because being a service industry, if a client needs something done, it gets done, no matter the time.

“People in agencies, as they do in many categories, work hard ­– particularly when we go into pitching. You pitch and do you your day job at the same time,” she says. “That’s the nature of our day job rightly or wrongly.”

However, Bond points out there comes a point where you need to prioritise other things in your life and for her, it’s spending time with her teenage sons before they leave home.

Leaving on a high

While Bond worked to strengthen the leadership team before stepping down, that’s not to suggest the agency hasn’t been performing until now.

Bond is leaving on a high point for the agency, noteably with PHD being named the 2018 Beacons Media Agency.

These wins are supported by many others, including seven Effies and five trophies at the Festival of Media Asia Pacific.

Bond has also received her own accolade this year, being named a winner of the Campaign Asia-Pacific Leading Change Awards with PHD China CEO Anna Chitty.

Alongside her leadership position at PHD, Bond has also been president of the Commercial Communications Council and from 2015 to early this year was the chair of its media committee.

She was the first female to lead the council, a fitting achievement given she has championed women in leadership throughout her career.

When asked by NZ Marketing at the end of 2017 for one problem she’d like to solve this year, she said: “It would be diversity within PHD and the broader advertising and communications industry.”

Speaking about it now, she says there’s some great talent in the business, they need to be nurtured to step up into those senior leadership roles.

And practicing what she preaches, managing director and acting CEO roles are held by women – Morris and Grafton respectively.

And with them at the helm, Bond is confident PHD’s momentum will continue.

“One of the things I said to the team when I stepped out of the role is ‘we have to keep thinking about how we evolve the business in a meaningful way for clients’ because it’s all about delivering client success and business results.”

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