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Mind-Sharing With a Brilliant Tactician

Paper printouts cover a wall in Phil Cowdell's office at WPP agency Mindshare. The printouts illustrate all of the processes employees must follow as they help clients such as Sprint, American Express and Ford tackle some of their most urgent business problems with marketing and media solutions. It's a visual representation of the agency's role, and it's something Cowdell asks every employee to do: visualize his or her own job.

“I was brought up on Procter & Gamble,” explains Cowdell, a 45-year-old Englishman now running Mindshare's extensive North American operations from New York. “Follow the book until you can write a better book. The biggest waste of time and money is rework. Follow the protocols and build on the intelligence of others. When I see people doing stuff that's inefficient, it drives me crazy.”

Cowdell was named chief of the agency last May, after spending time as CEO of GroupM's Ford Media Services—of which Mindshare is a part—along with stints at a host of other agencies including JWT and Ogilvy & Mather. He's also been a global client leader on businesses as important as Unilever.

His attention to flow, organizational charts and strict adherence to establish processes have won him praise internally, and his recent promotion appears to have stemmed the loss of clients such as Bristol-Myers Squibb. Since becoming CEO, Cowdell has already championed $500 million in new business wins, including Farmers Insurance.

When asked his thoughts about the current media landscape, in particular NBC's handling of the Leno/O'Brien situation, Cowdell recalls the management theory he employed in dealing with a similar situation involving a fast-food chain. “You never get to the point where you disenfranchise the franchisee,” he says of the NBC affiliates' move to oust Leno from NBC's 10 p.m. time slot. “Once you get there, you are screwed.”

Cowdell, who's also a martial arts expert, suggests that the secret to succeeding with such constituents is to have everyone agree on shared decisions and to closely monitor everyone's evolving thoughts on a given situation. Toward that end, he distributes surveys to clients that embrace top-down input from the CEO to the janitor for feedback on how the agency is performing. It helps him figure out when there's a red-light situation—such as the Leno shift back to late night—around the corner.

Cowdell also operates from the belief that too often people in business make superficial, adversarial decisions. He'd like to change the media negotiation from one that gets away from price to one that's more about quantifying value returned to the client.

Of course, media sales executives would agree—if only clients would share those results with their sales partners.

This belief is in part why Cowdell, who has lived on three continents, jokes that when it comes to commercial ratings, the U.S. has been like the Third World. He points out that many other countries have more sophisticated ways of measuring commercial performance. GroupM was behind a move to switch program ratings for commercial ratings back in 2006.

Sitting atop an agency with an estimated $8.6 billion in billings gives this freshly minted CEO a bird's-eye view of media spending, particularly the Michigan-based auto market, where his brother-in-law runs a major Ford dealership. When asked about any uptick in auto spending, Cowdell thinks it will be down, given Chrysler's continued woes and General Motors' reduction in the number of brands it plans to advertise.

“Ford in 2010 and 2011 will be conservative and flat on 2009 actual, but up on what's planned,” he says. “Ford spending will be smarter.”

Ford has a major presence on TV screens right now with its sponsorship of Fox's American Idol. With judge Simon Cowell announcing his plan to leave at the end of this season to begin a new Fox talent show, The X-Factor, does Cowdell think Ford will continue its involvement with the show?

“It's been a great franchise for them,” he says. “When you talked to a 23-year-old from California, Ford would not have been in the consideration list [before American Idol.] I say there is still a lot of value. It's not about a TV buy; it's about getting to a passion point. You can't always do Monday Night Football.

Cowdell, the son of two teachers, began his climb up the corporate ladder at an agency in the U.K. The journey that followed has taken him around the world, from Procter & Gamble in China to the corporate suites of America's biggest companies. “I'm on my 10th city, fifth country and third continent,” he says.

While in China, Cowdell recalls taking an apartment in a neighborhood of natives, rather than do the ex-pat thing and hang out with other Westerners.

Out of the office, Cowdell is far from the corporate suit he dons by day. He's an intrepid traveler, and describes a trip to Peru's Machu Picchu that involved walking for four days to see the ancient ruins from the optimum angle. After getting drenched in the rain and carrying his family's bags for days, on arrival the vista was cloudy. As Cowdell stood pondering the situation, the mist lifted, giving all a glimpse of an amazing view. Seeing it at the end of a coach tour wouldn't have been the same. He offers the example to illustrate how hard work makes the winning all the more worthwhile.

Like many in the media, Cowdell enjoys reading biographies—though his current read at the office is The Underdog Advantage: Using the Power of Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business on Top, by David Morey and Scott Miller.

The decidedly old-school Cowdell laughs at the concept of sharing things such as one's food intake in 140 characters on Twitter, and he doesn't have the time for Facebook friending. Surprisingly, he says he couldn't get into AMC's Mad Men but loved TBS's modern take on Madison Avenue, Trust Me, which was canceled after the first season.

That's not to say Cowdell isn't at the heart of new media: Google his name, and you'll find a slew of YouTube videos displaying his talents as a singer and dancer. A future contestant for The X-Factor, perhaps?