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What WPP's board should do next: 10 prescriptions for business after Sorrell

By Published on .

WPP's board faces big questions after the departure of Martin Sorrell, who built the company from scratch.
WPP's board faces big questions after the departure of Martin Sorrell, who built the company from scratch. Credit: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

It's been just over a week since WPP CEO Martin Sorrell stepped down from the world's largest advertising holding company following an internal investigation into an unspecified misconduct allegation, and the industry is still buzzing about what will happen next.

Mark Read, CEO at Wunderman and WPP Digital, and Andrew Scott, WPP's corporate development director and chief operating officer for Europe, have been named chief operating officers, reporting to WPP Chairman Roberto Quarta until a new CEO is appointed.

But beyond succession plans, the holding company has big decisions to make about its future—with analysts speculating WPP will explore new business models or sell off assets in attempts to focus. Meanwhile, Ford has placed its global creative into review, putting WPP on the defensive on one of its most important accounts.

Agency leaders and industry consultants told us what they would do if they had seats on WPP's board:

Kamran Asghar, CEO of Crossmedia: Present a different face

The next leader of WPP needs to understand "the agency business and world intimately because of so many diverse assets within the company," Ashgar says. But beyond that, "Given the time and the moment we live in, there is absolutely no excuse not to look specifically for female leadership at the helm."

"If for some reason they can't find the right female leader, they have to find somebody that represents a different face altogether," Ashgar argues. "Whether that's a person of color, whether that's as female. Or a non-Brit. It needs to be more representative of what the people who actually work in these agencies look and feel and act like."

Asghar also suggests reintegrating all creative and media into "classic" agencies, mentioning names like Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson Worldwide and Y&R; committing to 100 percent transparency in media, business operations and corporate communications; unloading any assets that create a conflict on that last point; and creating an open-source infrastructure for clients to plug directly into creative services, data intelligence and media buying. (Asghar originally published his thoughts in a LinkedIn post.)

"The fact that this came out on a Saturday, the fact that we don't know what happened, I think the shareholders have a right to know why the CEO of the largest ad holding company resigned," he says. "This is the age of transparency. Just rip the band-aid off."

Sandy Greenberg, co-founder & CEO of TerrI & Sandy: Reveal the truth

"As a board member, my greatest concern would be two very serious, back-to-back, issues that reflect a lack of transparency: The resignation of Sir Martin and moving Gustavo Martinez to Spain," Greenberg says. Martinez was chairman-CEO of J. Walter Thompson until a week after an employee filed a lawsuit last March alleging, among other things, that Mr. Martinez made "racist and sexist slurs," but he continues to work for WPP.

"There is a great mystery to both of these very public episodes," Greenberg says. "Why would anyone ever trust this organization? I would recommend lifting the veil of secrecy, telling the truth, and making a promise that transparency will be a key priority moving forward."

Separately, WPP needs to lock in staff who are essential to retaining key accounts, Greenberg adds: "Many key clients don't care that Sir Martin is gone. But they would be furious if their most valuable creative, account and strategic leaders were to exit the organization."

Mohan Ramaswamy, co-founder and partner, strategy at Work & Co: Take a left turn

Is a successor to Sorrell necessary at all?

"The WPP board could use this as a chance to reassess the value of the CEO role, and swap that model for a flatter structure," Ramaswamy says. "Scale and aggregation, hallmarks of Sorrell's approach, are no longer differentiators."

The nature of the work clients need today—digital, often—requires decentralization to work at the speed necessary, Ramaswamy adds. The board should empower and trust all creators, make room for more decision-makers, and give leadership time to create a vision beyond hitting short-term financial goals, he says.

Steven Piluso, executive director and head of media and integration at Media Storm: Name three successors

Piluso wouldn't appoint a new CEO—he would name three.

A trio of co-CEOs would ensure there's never a stalement, he says. But more than that, they could combine to bring a strong creative-agency sensibility, strong business strategy and operations acument and strong understand of ad tech and data. "I have never met one person who can do all three, but all three are necessary to understand, lead and chart a course for WPP," he says.

They should also be diverse in "geography or ethnic background or gender," Piluso adds. "While the economy becomes more global and borderless, culture counts for everything in marketing. These people need to be able to understand and advocate for a diverse of global consumer audience, global employee population, global brands and global shareholders."

And a triumverate could help avoid headlines speculating about the future of a company like WPP when any one leader left.

Secondly, Piluso says, "I would invest heavily in operational technology platforms to create a very nimble global network that allows me to shift people from different operating companies into client-specific entities with bespoke P&Ls. The bespoke client agency model falls apart because of conflicting lines of reporting and accountability to the legacy OpCos. This would provide a truly client-centric mentality and culture for these groups to focus on client first, agency remit second."

Ann Billock, partner at Ark Advisors: Set them free, invest and draw some lines

Step one, Billock writes, is to open negotiations for fair buy-backs from any of WPP's smaller or mid-sized agencies whose leaders might want to leave the giant holding company.

"Two: Bring entry and near-entry salaries up to a competitive level, so the best don't leave for the platforms and consultancies (I recognize there are already significant margin problems, of course; this requires longer-term thinking than the company currently evidences.)"

"Three: Invest more in consulting/innovation units, especially for the global networks but also for any promising non-network agencies. In order to compete with the consultancies, the key word here is invest —and have the patience to allow these units time to reach profitability."

"Four. Take the lead in a firmer stand against margin pressure from clients/procurement and even Wall Street (perhaps in concert with the other holding companies and industry trade associations)—and stop accepting less-than-profitable accounts just to show quarterly growth (I realize this is a hard one to crack.)"

Greg March, CEO of Noble People: Focus on something other than giant agencies

"Maybe they can get into something more like the WeWork business," March suggests. "Focus on incubation, real estate and back office for the next generation of agency entrepreneurs. Take minority stakes, help with accounting, IT, HR and globalization. Giant agencies don't feel like the future. Certainly not giant holding companies. Sell real creative advisors to agency owners that have done it before, not bankers to leash them. Make the agencies your clients not your conquest. That will force you to figure out what the real value of a holding company is."

Graham Brown, director and co-founder at MediaSense: Ask clients what they want

"The first thing I'd say is, 'Don't panic,'" Brown says.

"I do think all the holding companies will need to go through organizational change of some sort, because they are too cumbersome right now," he says. Though WPP is big, "I think they're very good at what they do, which is why I say don't panic."

WPP should talk to its clients and try to discern exactly what kind of company they actually want to work with, Brown says. "I think that what a number of people would say is it's a behemoth, WPP is, that can offer an all- you-can-eat buffet, and I'm not sure clients want to eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I don't think you can be all things to all people."

One critical question to ask is what marketers are prepared to pay more for, Brown adds. "That's what you focus on."

Chris Giglio, president at HL Strategic Solutions: Prevent a repeat

"I would push the board to tighten governance, to assure employees and shareholders that they are doing everything possible to prevent similar problems from happening in the future," Giglio says. "Never let a crisis go to waste; always demonstrate that you have learned from it."

Mark Bachmann, partner and chief client officer at Marcus Thomas: Carve it up

"Unlike banks, in our business, too big will fail," Bachmann says. "In addition to brilliant creative thinking, the client imperative today is around speed and flexibility. Impossible at 200,000 staffers. WPP should consider carving the holding company into 4-5 units, each offering fully integrated services. Clients and shareholders will be better served."

Dustin Engel, head of product and new ventures at PMG: Don't rush

"Recognize that what Martin's built over the years is too big to liquidate through some type of fire sale. Instead, find a successor who is well respected across the organization who can rally and inspire everyone to slowly, but surely, change the DNA of the company."

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