With no more summits to scale, PHD’s Rob Young calls it a career

The Canadian media industry is saying goodbye to one of its premiere researchers, a co-creator of one of its earliest standalone media services companies, and certainly one of its finest moustaches, with the impending retirement of PHD Canada’s senior vice-president of marketing science, Rob Young.

His retirement next week comes 40 years after the creation of the media agency that once bore his name: Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell (colloquially known as HYPN, pronounced “hype”). It launched in 1979, rising to become one of Canada’s leading independent media agencies prior to its 1998 acquisition by Omnicom and subsequent rechristening as PHD Canada in 2003.

Along the way, Young and his partners sold the agency to Labatt Breweries of Canada’s Supercorp division (1990); invented the concept of “conjunctive buying” (negotiating media rates on the basis of the agency’s collective client spend as opposed to on a client-by-client basis); bought the agency back from Labatt (1994) and worked with a who’s who of Canadian and global marketing.

And the moustache was there through it all. If time travel were to ever become a thing, Young’s formidable facial hair would enable him to comfortably fit right in among the menfolk of some late 19th Century frontier town.

He grew it early in his career, he says, figuring it would bring some gravitas to a fresh-faced kid new to the industry. “When you’re really young in the biz, you want to look older to be taken seriously [and] a moustache seemed to be my best bet at the time,” he says. “And it kind of grew on me, so to speak.”

Now 70, his longish hair greying but still thick, Young might be the last of his generation still working in Canadian marketing. He’d like to think he and his HYPN partners played at least some role in elevating the media function. “In the late 1970’s and early ’80’s, the media discipline was terribly devalued,” he says. “Agency management placed [it] somewhere between the checking department and the accounting department on their priority list; well below account management, and very far below creative.

“My partners and I set out to convince our industry that media was important, and that the 85% of the ad spend devoted to media placement deserved 85% of the attention and resources from marketing decision makers.

“It took 40 years, but I do believe we accomplished that goal.”

If David Harrison is to be believed, Young is going to hate this story. Harrison, who gave Young his first advertising job in the media department at MacLaren Advertising in 1974, describes his former business partner as a “modest polymath” who is uncomfortable with praise.

“He just gets on with it,” says Harrison, now mostly retired although maintaining an office inside PHD Canada as chairman. “He doesn’t look for kudos, he looks for solutions.”

“In terms of agency research people, there was Rob Young and then, way back in the distance, there was everyone else,” adds Susan Ellsworth, vice-president, research director at PHD’s sister Omnicom agency, OMD Canada.

Hugh Dow, who worked alongside Young at the MacLaren Media Data Centre in the 1970s—and was inspired by HYPN’s success to launch a standalone media entity within MacLaren—says Young  made a “significant difference” to the Canadian media industry. “He has given his time and expertise to literally every industry research and audience measurement organization,” he says. “His clients have benefited and those organizations have kept pace with the times.”

Young also has a cheeky sense of humour. Former Print Measurement Bureau president Steve Ferley remembers how Young used to refer to him as “Boutros Boutros Ferley,” a nod to former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. “That would not have been off-the-cuff. He would have given it considerable prior thought,” says Ferley. “Boutros Boutros-Ghali was known for his diplomatic skills, and I was flattered that Rob would see fit to draw such a parallel.”

Kathy Gardner, vice-president of media insights at Thinktv, was aware of Young’s reputation long before she actually worked with him on industry committees and discovered why he was held in such high esteem.

“When Rob speaks, peers and colleagues really listen,” says Gardner. “They listen because he truly has something to say, something to impart, something to share.  It’s not the years of experience that Rob brings to the table that make the difference.  Nor is it the fact that he is passionate about everything that is media and advertising.  It’s because he is curious, and considers his response to any question or challenge with deliberate thought, weighing the possibilities with care.”

One of Young’s signature talents, says Harrison, is an ability to interpret data and make it visually arresting. One of his final professional accomplishments was the creation and presentation of the most recent annual Canadian Media Usage Study (CMUST), a truly gargantuan presentation filled with graphic elements that he spends months assembling before hitting the speaking circuit to present to associations, media vendors, etc.

“It’s unbelievable how he puts it together, and makes it understandable and ties things together,” says Harrison.

When Young puts his mind to doing something, it tends to get done. He was curious about writing and recording music, so he wrote a bunch of songs, then enlisted some of Canada’s top session musicians to help him cut five (!) country/roots albums between 2006 and 2017 (you can find them on Spotify).

He wanted to climb a mountain, so he marked his 50th birthday by climbing Mount Assiniboine, a 3,618-metre peak  on the Great Divide spanning the Alberta and B.C. border. He also designed the 5,000 square-foot log home that sits on the 100-acre farm he and his wife Sara own in the Rocky Mountain foothills, about an hour north of Cochrane, Alta.

Young applied similar rigour when it came to building his career. He became fascinated with marketing and advertising while working at the Sarnia, Ont. radio station CKJD during summer breaks from the University of Western Ontario.

He not only sold ads, but also worked as an all-night DJ. “I selected songs on my ability to get out and get something to eat,” he remembers. “I could put on a Led Zeppelin record and go down to the restaurant and get a sandwich at 2 o’clock in the morning, and the song was still playing when I came back.”

Young’s interest in marketing and advertising grew, and in 1975, armed with a bachelor’s degree in science, he dashed off a series of letters to media directors at Toronto agencies enquiring about a possible job. He was rebuffed by everyone except Harrison, then the media director at MacLaren Advertising and destined to become one of the central figures in the Canadian media industry over the next few decades.

Young remembers spending much of the interview telling Harrison about a recent summer trip to Scotland; he was surprised when Harrison, a man who prizes precise language, offered him a job on the spot. “He was more interested in my ability to tell a story and communicate and enunciate than if I could add up numbers,” says Young.

Young was still a rookie though, and that showed on one of his very first tasks on the agency’s GM account—a radio buy for the launch of the automaker’s Chevy Vega. “He made the assumption that the way to choose what radio stations to buy was to buy the most expensive ones, because surely they’d be the best,” says Harrison. “That’s the opposite of what one is meant to do.”

But he persevered, and a chance meeting with Tatu Pesonen, a native of Finland who headed up the media department at rival agency McCann, would transform his professional career. The two men sensed a growing need for a dedicated media services company.

“We were sitting together and talking about how our agencies didn’t really give much credence to what were doing, and I said ‘Why don’t we start something?'” says Young. “And he said [mimics Pesonen’s Finnish accent] ‘Sheet Rob, that’s a good idea.'”

The pair approached Harrison about becoming president of their new venture, and the new shop—Harrison, Young & Pesonen—arrived in 1979. Harrison’s initial came first because he was the president, says Young, while “Y” before “P” just sounded better and it created a “hype” sound that appealed to the partners.

Speedy Muffler King was among the fledgling agency’s charter clients, later joined by the Quebec media company Telemedia. The “N” in HYPN, Doug Newell, joined two years later, and the four men quickly grew the agency into a major force within Canadian media.

Young mostly oversaw research and analysis, while Newell was an all-around talent with a knack for buying, and Pesonen cultivated a reputation for being, in Young’s words, a “crazy buyer” until his untimely death from acute liver failure in 1987.

Harrison, meanwhile, was the big picture guy, maintaining relationships with the various industry associations and making sure the agency had the requisite runway (and resources) to grow. He was also tasked with reining in his spendthrift colleagues. Young remembers one impromptu shopping trip with Pesonen, during which the two men purchased three Apple Lisa computers, at a cost of $10,000 each (Harrison points out that the price was actually $12,500 for a computer and a printer), because they were so smitten by their capabilities.

“Harrison had a fit,” says Young, chuckling at the memory.

But HYPN was one of the first Canada agencies to adopt computers. “It became known that we had computers,” says Harrison, who says that media directors from rival agencies would request permission to visit the agency to see them in action.

Worries about finances faded as HYPN found itself on a rocket ride to the top. In 1984, it won the media buying business for Unilever Canada—not just one brand or a handful of brands, the whole shebang. It was a stunning achievement for a five-year-old independent shop.

One of those first pitch meetings came to an abrupt conclusion,  says Young, when Pesonen “flipped out” after being challenged on HYPN’s rates, which one of the packaged goods giant’s executives called “bullshit” because they were so low.

“I remember David saying ‘Well, we can kiss that one goodbye.’ But they hired us,” says Young. “It was the strangest thing.”

At one point HYPN controlled half of all independent media billings in the country, with a client roster that included Cara Operations and Alberto-Culver Canada. “We were picking up business every week—it was freaky weird,” says Young. “The advertising agencies were apoplectic.”

Not surprisingly, the agency’s growth put it squarely in the sights of the larger agency groups. Finally, Omnicom came calling in 1997. The sale was transformative, elevating HYPN from a strong local agency to one with the backing of a global ad powerhouse. “It was important. It had to happen,” says Young of the sale.

Young remained involved after the sale, although his role “changed quite a bit” as he adapted to the operation. “I took a summer off, tried to learn how to play golf and failed miserably; got really bored, and returned to the company—in a reduced capacity of course—and focused on the research side of things.

“I was treated very well and granted freedom to support the company as I saw fit.”

Leadership of the newly renamed HYPN/PHD Canada was assigned to a triumvirate of Fred Forster, Fred Auchterlonie and Cam Reston. The latter now runs Omnicom Media Group.

The HYPN name was dropped in 2003, but PHD Canada has retained its forerunner’s sterling reputation, growing in size and billings while adding new tools and capabilities. Young had a front row seat as the agency grew in size and scope. “I didn’t really report to anyone [and] no one reported to me. And yet I was integrated into the operation and that was a testament to the very good sensibilities of the [leadership],” he says.

He began contemplating retirement shortly after his 70th birthday in January. It was a big one, and it led him to taking stock. While his enthusiasm for the business hadn’t waned, there were just too many other things he wanted to do, and a dwindling amount of time to do them.

“When it comes to retirement, there are two kinds of people: Those who never much liked their work, but put up with it day after day until they could plot their escape, [and] those who love their work, slowly realize they might have 10 or 15 years left to live, and figure they should try new things while they have the chance,” he says candidly. “I’m in that second group.”

Retirement, he says, will afford him the opportunity to pursue a few other things he has mind on. Like what? Well, he already has the outline for his first novel, a murder mystery set on the Camino del Norte (Northern Way), an 865-kilometre route in the north of Spain.

The protagonist is a perceptive RCMP officer from Alberta who visits the Northern Way and stumbles across a series of murders linked to a monastery in the area.

While not prone to sentimentality (asked what he expects his final day, Dec. 20, will be like, he responds: “I think it’s going to be a day just like any other day.”) Young says that the past few weeks have produced a flood of memories as people stop by his sixth floor office to reminisce and tell stories.

He is grateful, he says, that he was able to dictate the terms of his departure in an industry where people over the age of 50 are too often deemed expendable. “To be in this business at 70…I’m very fortunate to have that longevity,” he says. And one thing’s for sure: Canadian media is about to get a lot less hairy.

Chris Powell