Mark Read, WPP’s CEO, was in the midst of a three-year transformation plan for the world’s largest holding company—and then the pandemic hit. WPP’s goal of “radical evolution” got rockier as clients across the industry cut spending or sharply switched strategies during lockdown. WPP cut headcount 6.5% and revenue declined 9.3% in 2020. Read, however, has continued on his path of merging agencies, rounding out the holding company’s capabilities and making some surprising high-level hires. Here, he discusses how WPP intends to participate in what he calls “a very strong economic recovery.” The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We’re now in the second quarter. How are things looking for WPP as we move out of the pandemic?
The year started well, and people are looking to a pretty strong economic recovery—I say a very strong economic recovery—in 2021. COVID has been tough on everybody, but there have been some silver linings for our industry generally. Our client relationships have strengthened, there has been a good round of new business, we’ve learned new ways of working. It demonstrated to clients as a company and an industry our ability to help them understand consumers, to sell, to build brands and to change reputations.
Can you cite some examples?
There’s the work we did for Ford, helping them sell the Bronco when their dealers were shut; the work we did for Pfizer, helping them talk about being a science-based company and repositioning them; working with a chain of liquor stores to set up an e-commerce site so they could do curbside delivery in a week. The Kamala Harris “Girl Up” film we did with Ogilvy [showing girls reacting to the Vice President’s swearing-in] we did in eight hours. We have learned to work much faster and it’s going to be a very busy year.
You have also been busy moving around the chess pieces at WPP. What is the strategy there?
We made a decision two years ago to make WPP more client-centric and simpler for our clients to navigate by breaking down the artificial walls between traditional [marketing] and digital and analog and digital that made it harder for clients to get media-neutral ideas out of the system. It also gives each of our brands a platform for growth and the ability to provide a full solution for clients. Bringing Geometry into VMLY&R gives us strong integrated e-commerce integration. Bringing AKQA [and Grey] together into the AKQA Group while retaining individual brands helped them maintain clients, and we are seeing really good traction from a number of clients they already had in common. There’s more work to do at WPP around finance, HR, shared services, which is less interesting, but still relevant.
You’ve been doing some big-name hiring, such as bringing in Rob Reilly as global chief creative officer and Devika Bulchandani as CEO of Ogilvy North America. Is this a move toward centralizing to create more cross-agency solutions for clients?
I don’t think centralization is the right word. If you were to ask me the right brand structure for WPP, I look at companies like LVMH and Disney—which are creative organizations that have brands inside. Louis Vuitton, Pixar, Marvel are all brands inside a strong parent company brand. I believe 100 percent in a strong AKQA, a strong Ogilvy, a strong Mindshare or Mediacom, and Devika wouldn’t have joined us if she didn’t believe we could create a strong Ogilvy, nor would Andy Main [Ogilvy’s global CEO]. We have hired leaders from diverse backgrounds such as Andy, who came from Deloitte Digital; Kirk McDonald [CEO] at GroupM came from AT&T; Devika from McCann and Dave Rolfe [WPP global head of production] from Facebook.
But isn’t the structure to help with holding company level pitches?
We have a collaborative culture; our people work well together. There are folks at the center who help make that happen. There are 100,000 people who work for WPP and most of them work for our brands. I don’t expect that to change for some time, if ever.