Gary Scattergood
Apr 26, 2016

PHD: We are not toddlers anymore

Susana Tsui, Asia-Pacific CEO of PHD, reflects on a year of solid new business growth and explains why she thinks ad blocking is a ‘first-world’ issue.

Tsui: “We look at the equation differently in terms of effectiveness [rather than reach]”
Tsui: “We look at the equation differently in terms of effectiveness [rather than reach]”

After spending most of 2015 towards the top of Campaign and R3 New Business League, PHD APAC CEO Susana Tsui can look back at a job well done. She begun last year with one clear objective: to increase new business.

Speaking at the firm’s Singapore office almost two and half years after taking the reins from Cheuk Chiang, she unpicks the strategy that has seen the firm strive to punch above its weight.

“The first year was about setting ambitions, developing operations and setting the strategy for how we develop the network,” she says. “The second year was about building the brand and winning awards, both for creativity and effectiveness. Then last year was all about winning new business ... The new business wins were tremendous, and to come on top of the New Business League pretty much all year was incredible.”

Notable gains in 2015 included SC Johnson’s media buying business, Ferrero in emerging markets and GSK and Unilever in Australia. As revealed in last month’s Agency Report Card, PHD won a total of 71 new businesses with revenue growth of 21 percent and a headcount rise of 25 percent. Standout work included the use of Source to optimise spend for Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which won PHD Singapore’s first Cannes Lion.

“I would say our profile is smart, still very much focused on strategy and planning, but we are now very much mainstream,” she says. “The big noticeable change has come around our reputation. We used to hear ‘who is PHD?’ But now it’s ‘Oh yeah, those guys.’ We are no longer a toddler. We have grown up a lot and found our footing.” 

Tsui, who joined the agency after spending almost eight years at Ogilvy, latterly as COO of OgilvyOne, puts the recent success down to an unrelenting focus on the consumer and a resolute commitment to transparency.

Gone are the days, she argues, where the media business is a pure-play trading game. Instead, the savviest clients understand critical thinking, strategy and planning are key differentiators.

“There is science about the stuff we talk about,” she says. “We look at the equation in a different way in terms of effectiveness, whereas some of our competitors are still focused on reach ... The rest of the industry is still chasing because it’s safe to be a follower. Everyone is holding onto the last buck through the old trading game. That’s not the only game now. It’s not about having the strongest muscle being able to buy the cheapest media. With technology, it’s about the right media.”

This “different game” also extends to talent and recruitment, where she has typically forthright views. Her competitors for talent are Google and Facebook, not other agencies or even client-side teams.


  • 2013 CEO, PHD APAC
  • 2012 Regional VP (COO, growth and strategic partnerships), OgilvyOne APAC
  • 2006 Regional president, [email protected] APAC
  • 2004 Managing director, XM China
  • 2002 Director, XM Hong Kong

“The bright ones will go to the tech companies, and the not-so-bright ones will go to the client side. Have you ever seen an exceptionally bright agency person go over to the client side?” she asks. “We want ‘thinkers’-—people who are aware and curious.”

They also needs to adopt a global attitude, she adds, not least because that is the mindset adopted by most consumers. “There are no physical, geographical boundaries now,” she insists. She feels lucky that most of her clients understand that and have embraced the digital reality.

“The brands that are ahead are the ones who are willing to try new things, instead of relying on traditional media and using very small amounts of money to dabble with digital ... If brands are still dabbling in digital, then they are too slow. We are not talking about early days of social media any more. We are now well into its second decade. You can’t dabble in it. It’s like saying ‘shall we just try prime time TV?’ Nobody says that!”

While Tsui can look back on three years of steady progression, PHD is not wholly protected from some of the storm clouds on the horizon. Ad blocking, however, is not something that is keeping her awake at night. She claims consumers, especially in emerging markets, have bigger concerns around online content. “I don’t want to be dismissive but this is very much a Western, ‘first world’ issue: the luxury of privacy. Most of us would focus on fighting for the freedom to have knowledge, because that can still be taken away in a lot of our markets,” she says.

Tsui also predicts PHD will be less affected than its larger competitors by the economic slowdown in China. While it will undoubtedly make trading tougher, she says there is still scope for plenty of growth “because we haven’t saturated the market yet”.

There is also the challenge of effectively managing the agency’s growth and the implementation of a new version of its proprietary global operating system, Source.

“This year will be about building operational and delivery fundamentals after a big-growth spurt, which is bound to cause challenges with resources and infrastructure,” Tsui says. “We will also be putting a lot more focus back on the work. We spent a lot of time and investment on pitching last year, so we need to get back to building the profile of the good work that we’ve done.”


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