Less hoops, less hierarchy: Phil McDonald on moving from WPP to BCM

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 21 August 2018
Phil McDonald

Fewer emails, fewer obstacles and less distractions; these are the biggest changes Phil McDonald has experienced in his shift from WPP to BCM.

Having spent almost his entire career within WPP, including two years as the managing director of Leo Burnett South East Asia and then a further 12 years within Y&R Australia, McDonald says he’s been “constantly surprised” since starting at BCM as partner just six weeks ago.

Firstly by having media, creative, planning and production all under the one roof and secondly, because he no longer wakes up to hundreds of emails sent overnight from overseas counterparts.

“I don’t come to work in the morning with a full inbox from people who are asking me questions about stuff that doesn’t matter that much,” McDonald tells AdNews.

“I hated sending emails to people I didn’t know about spread sheets I didn’t care about.

“I start my day with an empty inbox which means I can focus solely on the people within the company and most importantly, the clients.”

McDonald, who was promoted to CEO two years ago and exited in March, says he started plotting his next move following various changes within WPP. His departure made way for new Y&R CEO Pete Bosilkovski.

“When a company you work for changes so much, like what was happening at WPP, you’d be silly if you didn’t start thinking about what it is you want to do next,” he says.

“We went from working as part of really good global network in Y&R to then reporting into a WPP operation locally, which was in essence STW. The world changed overnight and not for the better.”

McDonald is referencing the 2016 STW and WPP mega merger that saw the local business swallowed by the global force of WPP. He is also alluding to other changes within WPP such as the rise of the horizontality model and the growth of Hogarth that saw production siphoned out of agencies.

McDonald's departure aligned with several other senior exits at WPP, which led to questions being raised about the wider changes within the WPP business.

“I loved the people at Y&R but I didn’t love what I was doing as much and then the opportunity arose to take a shareholding in BCM,” he says.

BCM at 60 people is a third of the size of the Y&R business, which was around 180 people across Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. But size, as well as using an external media agency, could often create complication, McDonald explained.

“When I spoke to some clients in my previous gig, their biggest frustration is being able to manage various people and various specialist agencies,” McDonald says.

“When an agency is working well, it’s faster and better. No matter who owns you, whether you’re an independent or owned by a multinational, you’ll find a good agency is agile. In an independent company, you’ve probably got more guarantee of that.”

McDonald refers to BCM as having a “flat creative structure”, built over the last 23 years by partners Kevin Moreland and Paul Cornwell.

As a partner, McDonald says he has “more skin in the game” and with a small leadership team, more ability to control the decisions that need to be made.

“In my previous role, I may have had shares and a bonus, but ultimately there were a lot of people controlling your next move,” he says.

“If we believe we need to hire person X for client X we can do it. But that often doesn’t happen in a multinational framework and it doesn’t happen because there are financial disciplines that they have to follow.

“You have to do things differently within a multinational network. There are more obstacles and that’s the reality of running a large company. It’s not a negative against a large company, it’s just a fact of life.”

BCM was recently named AdNews’ State Agency of the Year and positions itself as a full-service agency. McDonald says having media capabilities in-house have been a “joy”, whereas WPP creative agencies are encouraged to use its media business, GroupM, which he doesn’t believe always benefited the client.

“I’ve certainly been in situations where I’ve had to remind people that this is probably not the right move for the client and questioned why we were making it. If you’re having that discussion it’s the wrong discussion,” he says.

“Having a separate media company and separate creative company doesn’t work. Processes get replicated, ideas get replicated. We’ve got to mobilise two sets of people against a problem that gets interpreted maybe two different ways, sometimes more. If you had it all working together, it could be so different.”

He’s confident in BCM’s ability to challenge media agencies in the Brisbane market.

“There is absolutely an opportunity for clients looking to do media differently,” he says.

“Doing media differently is about understanding the media is not the message and the messaging is not the media. You’ve actually got to think about the channel. You’ve got to think about the content that goes on that channel and you have to be able to change the channel as quickly as you can change the content that goes on it. A lot of media agencies can’t do that, and a creative agency can’t do that, so there’s a huge opportunity.”

As for the horizontality model, McDonald doesn’t see it working for the scale of Australia and believes it’s something that looks good for London or New York, but not quite Sydney and Melbourne.

Currently operating just in Brisbane, McDonald says “anything is possible” with the future of BCM when asked about the possibility of a Sydney office.

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