‘We used to be known as the ANZ agency, not anymore’: PHD Melbourne turns 10

After reaching its first major milestone of a decade in business, PHD's national CEO Mark Jarrett, Melbourne managing director Simon Lawson, and global CMO Chris Stephenson, speak to Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan about the agency's success expanding down south.

Opening its doors on 1 May 2012, PHD Melbourne recently turned 10. The Omnicom Media Group agency, which three years prior rebranded from Total Media, the agency industry stalwart Barry O’Brien successfully built up, set up shop after winning big with ANZ as its foundation client. 

ANZ is a client worthy of opening an outpost for, then $60m in media billings, now well above that figure across both Australian and New Zealand markets. With 15 part of the foundation team to service the client, three of those staff still remain now.

“It has been a slow and steady rise,” says Melbourne managing director, Simon Lawson, who joined PHD from Zenith Optimedia to be national business director on ANZ in 2012.

“For a long time we were maybe known as the ANZ agency down in Melbourne, and then after picking up CUB in 2017 and then going on to pick up the Spotlight Retail Group,  who is now one of our biggest clients nationally, that growth has been exciting to be part of.”

With a client list further includes the likes of the AFL, Porsche, Swisse Wellness, Singapore Airlines, and Tennis Australia, the once ANZ agency now stands in its own right.

Industry figures across 2021 list PHD as having the second-highest agency billings nationally, and national CEO Mark Jarrett tells Mumbrella that making up now 35-40% of that figure, Melbourne has been a “massive contributor” to the agency’s success.

The foundation PHD Melbourne team – three remain.

“In 2014, which was only a year or two after PHD Melbourne was first born I think we were 14th in the market”, Jarrett says of the national agency, compared to its now top two spot.

“It is important to recognise first though, that it is not necessarily about scale,” he says. “We’re focused on trying to bring strategy and planning smarts to clients and look at the best ways to deliver business solutions for them, and the growth has come because of that, not because we’ve targeted growth.”

Of the 15-strong foundation team, in the image above, three remain today, including Maree Braham, PHD Australia’s head of accountability, Kathryn Weatherlake, group business director and Lawson.

Lawson says that PHD is not “a Melbourne or Sydney thing”, and that the office’s success has “snuck up on us a little”. He says one key difference is the majority of the clients in the Victorian capital are more local, compared to those in Sydney.

“The fact that we’ve kept our clients for so long, like with ANZ since the beginning, we’ve now had them for over 10 years, when Chris Stephenson was on the pitch team. Priceline we’ve had since 2014, 7-11 since 2015, we haven’t churned clients, we’ve grown longstanding relationships with them, and that’s something that I think we’re all super proud of.”

Kathryn Weatherlake (Group Business Director), David Bielenberg (Melb Head of Strategy) and Simon Lawson (Melbs MD)

Stephenson also says the story of the Melbourne office has not been one of “same-same consistency, but its been an absolute evolution”.

Lawsons says in its ten-year existence, the agency has never lost a major client.

There are cliches that persist regarding the industries in Melbourne and Sydney, when asked the age-old “in Melbourne you build the relationship then win the business, in Sydney its the other way around”, has been echoed around the industry, although appears to have somewhat died off now. Speaking to agency executives late last year, and putting some of these to them, it was around a 50-50 split on the continued truth to them.

Another from Peter Biggs, former Clemenger BBDO Melbourne said 12 years ago that clients in Melbourne “are a dream”. They’re loyal, they’re intelligent, and they take the time to build relationships with agencies. They don’t go to pitch for artificial or knee-jerk reasons.”

Asked if these could be a contributing factor to PHD’s high retention, Lawson rejected the cliches.

“It’s a bit mythical, that idea that Melbourne is about relationships and Sydney is more transactional. I think relationships are important wherever you are.”


PHD Melbourne’s team, now 100+

“If you look at the Melbourne market historically, how many agencies have come down from Sydney, opened a Melbourne outpost and been successful? It’s a very short list and I think PHD Melbourne is, with humility, probably at the top of that list.”

He does again note it is hard to make that point with humility.

“But I do think we’re an example of an agency that’s come down from Sydney and we’ve been successful in our own right, and I think that’s probably a credit to MJ and the senior leadership team who have allowed us to be our own agency.

While Lawson and Jarrett both agree the markets are “pretty different”, they also insist it all comes under the one national umbrella for PHD.

“I think the first thing to say is what we’ve never done is enter an agency award as PHD Sydney or PHD Melbourne, it has always been PHD Australia,” Jarrett says. “There is a lot from our perspective about creating a single national leadership team and having a lot of consistency across the board. It’s about giving people the ability to run their own race and giving them the autonomy and the ability to get on with it rather than dictating to them. But it is still one PhD across Australia.”

PHD global CMO, Chris Stephenson in Melbourne last week for the agency’s SHIFT event

This progression has come through consistent changes though, alongside some things staying the same, this being Lawson’s ever presence, culminating in him being appointed MD of the Melbourne office late last year.

Stephenson says over the course of the decade, the nature of client relationships has changed, as well as the nature of the work, the products, and how people work together.

“That’s been proactive, it’s been a conscious decision to change things, to dial things up, not just as businesses grow. That’s been an outcome of the transformation we’ve seen in media over as last decade has played out, and we’ve seen this market and the broader network and get ahead of that and it’s been a remarkable driver of what we’ve seen in Melbourne and in Victoria.”

“I’m going to badly paraphrase that Mark Scott quote,” concludes Stephenson, in town for PHD’s Melbourne Shift event. “Which is that if you want things to stay the same you better be prepared to make some changes. And I think what the Melbourne team has done over ten years has been a testament to that.”


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