PHD APAC’s James Hawkins: ‘Cut us open and you’ll still see bits of strategic planning’

After four years, PHD APAC CEO, James Hawkins's plan is coming to fruition. Speaking to Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan, Hawkins talks about pushing connectivity across the 16 markets within his remit, and why the variance in social norms in each market can throw up some challenges.

Almost four years after shifting across from Dentsu to lead PHD across the APAC region, CEO James Hawkins’ plan to push a connected network is coming to fruition.

“When I first arrived, I put a four-year plan together about how I wanted PHD in Asia Pacific to be run, and my big thing is creating communities because I felt that there were pockets of brilliance across the 16 markets that I’m responsible for, but I felt that we needed to be greater than the sum of our parts,” Hawkins tells Mumbrella while on a recent visit to Australia,” Hawkins says.

He calls Australia, alongside New Zealand the “absolute standout and the jewellery in the crown of our network” (I wonder if that’s what he tells all the markets…), but says that the question was “how do we take those learnings and share them across the tiger economies of Southeast Asia?”.

Further, “how do we wake the sleeping giant of India for us as a network? Or how do we take what we can, or what is transferable into north Asia and particularly China?”.

Hawkins says shared learnings are the key to success for the Omnicom Media Group agency across APAC, and that by successfully creating a collaborative network, is how you become, as he says, greater than the sum of your parts.

Hawkins says “it doesn’t all have to come through Singapore”, where he is based, and has been for the past 15 years or so.

“You’ll die trying to try and get everything coming through Singapore…if that has to be a bottleneck, I just don’t feel that is a modern-day agency network. There has to be connectivity.”

PHD’s DNA is still strategy-led

Last year, in the midst of COVID, PHD underwent a makeover, which Australian CEO Mark Jarrett said at the time was “bringing a modernity to PHD”.

With PHD’s new thought leadership piece, the delayed SHIFT taking place this week, I asked Hawkins if PHD still defined itself as the ‘planning-led’ agency it takes its roots from, or if it was taking the moment to redefine itself.

PHD’s rebrand

“It’s a sharpening of the focus, I would say. If you cut us in half, you’d still see bits of that strategic planning, particularly for PhD as a challenger brand.”

Hawkins says the reason why PHD still wants to be a strategic-planning led agency is because “we still believe that that sort of innovation and creativity delivers disproportionate return on investment”.

“You might say ‘everybody is saying that’, but that is something we truly believe in, and to do that, we have to have world-class execution to get the day-to-day stuff done, and then it gives us that platform to do the more creative stuff and bringing our clients into that environment.”

Roadblocks and opportunities

For the year ahead, Hawkins says everything comes down to people.

“The roadblock for the year ahead, is of course going to be making sure our talent feels valued, loyal to our business, that they’re growing and developing, and that we’re able to further attract that talent”, he says.

“There is no doubt across the region, the cost of talent and the inflation around talent is far outstripping our opportunity to commensurate revenues. We’re being asked to do more with less, and the talent we have is in tighter supply and greater demand, so we’re battling with the forces of economics.”

“We’re trying as much as we can do and every single conversation that I have starts and finishes with people and talent. I cannot think of, and I challenge you to try and think of a conversation that I could potentially have as a regional agency leader that doesn’t come back to talent.”

Another final focus for the period ahead for Hawkins, is empowering PHD’s teams to continue to destigmatise mental health and wellness, an area the agency has become a market leader in previously. 

Challenges with consistency 

Hawkins concedes though, there are “challenges with consistency”, when applying this across the 16 markets, with varying levels of progression across the vast cultural differences.

“This is giving credit where credit is due to the Australia market, for us here it very much is at the forefront around mental health, mental wellness, and the work that our guys have done out of this office in terms of mental first aid, that’s been well-documented, in being the first agency to be fully accredited.

It comes back to Hawkins’ original point in sharing knowledge across the network in order to make progress, and continue the push toward his vision for the ‘modern agency’.

“There are markets where it is not widely accepted that you can openly and publicly talk about mental health, and mental challenges. Particularly in north Asia, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist if it isn’t spoken about openly. But we were able to take the learnings and have our people community champion, led by the Australian team, connect across each of the markets.”

“So as I said, every conversation I have starts and finishes with people. So whilst there are local market nuances, the reality is that we continue to push empathetic leadership, and that can be challenging for some of the markets, but we have to strive for that consistency.”


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