Malcolm Devoy, PHD Worldwide’s Chief Strategy Officer EMEA and Overthrow II co-author, shares his thoughts with PHD’s Overthrow II partner, eatbigfish on the changing media landscape and why a challenger media plan has such a positive and disproportionate effect on sales.


The concept of ‘challenger brands’ is now 20 years old, and the business world is a very different place today. What have been the most significant changes to the media landscape from 1999 compared to 2020?

The media landscape has changed extraordinarily in those 20 years. The major trend is a far greater proliferation of choice for consumers of where they consume media and consequently a massive scarcity of attention because it’s no longer the case of people having set routines for media consumption. It’s now available 24/7, on multiple platforms, in so many different ways, and often layered on top of each other. From a media agency’s perspective, identifying how to reach consumers has become far more complex and the opportunity to reach them in meaningful ways has become far harder because of this attention scarcity today.

How has the proliferation of new media impacted creativity?

Twenty years ago, creativity was very much around a 30-second spot. Now there are multiple other media channels; from a simple static image or a tiny format that needs to get the point across on a website, and there are constraints to being creative through these formats. So it’s not just the content of the creative or the copy, that needs to be creative, but also the use of the media channel needs to be creative as well. And there are some brilliant examples of challenger brands using media in very creative ways to force attention and get their message through.

You co-wrote Overthrow II with Adam Morgan, which looked at the strategies and behaviours of a new wave of challengers upsetting the status quo. What were the key insights from the research, interviews and case studies that featured in the book?

We found that despite the differences in the brands, differences in brand characters, differences of category, the difference of competitors, they had some things in common.

The first was about effectiveness and efficiency. The brands we studied were about effectiveness. And that is counter-category culture at the moment because so many brands strive for efficiency. And the reason why it’s such a crucial difference is that these challenger brands were essentially being very efficient by virtue of being effective. In contrast, many brands tend to focus on efficiency first, and brands would rarely become effective by being efficient.

Second, our challenger brands all put attitude first, and this works extremely well for them. These brands tend to have big mouths, and they look to court attention, and they do that by having a clear point of view on something. That view might be divisive, but they stand for it and champion it. And the remarkable thing is they will draw buyers from people who don’t necessarily share that point of view but are seduced by the power of that brand standing for something.

The third one is that they are all rule-breakers. The rule-breakers are ruling. They are looking at every category convention, they’re looking at the behaviours that exist in the category and from competitors, and they’re challenging what is outdated, inappropriate or just not right for that brand or that category. And they’re doing it dramatically. They’re doing it creatively, and they’re doing it to court attention at every touchpoint, be it packaging, be it PR, be it the product shape itself. They’re courting attention by breaking down category convention, and it means they stand out. These brands are outstanding at standing out.


Devoy also reveals how some media behaviours haven’t changed over the last 20 years; why the industry has seen a decline in creativity; his favourite case study from Overthrow II; and his advice to brands wanting to take a challenger approach. Read the full interview with Malcolm Devoy on eatbigfish’s site here.