WPP's Mark Read talks economic recovery, what clients want and how recent hires and restructurings fit its game plan
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.
Rob Reilly will sit above the entire creative organization. How does that fit within the framework?
His job is to be my partner in making WPP a more creative organization. He won’t have a big staff; he will directly help me and our leaders make WPP the most creative company on the planet. He will play a big role in championing our creative people and giving them a seat at the table. … Rob will have a pretty wide remit across the organization. He doesn’t start for a few weeks, but he will talk to clients about the value of creativity. Sometimes people in our industry have a crisis of confidence about creativity. Clients know how important it is and we need to invest more in it.
You famously merged VML with Y&R and Wunderman with Thompson. Why was Ogilvy not merged with another agency?
If there is a reason it is down to David Ogilvy, who is sadly no longer with us. David had the vision to build a business with all the capabilities it needed—Ogilvy, Ogilvy One, Ogilvy PR—all those integrated capabilities that spanned communications, PR, direct, CRM. If there was a reason it is down to him and the people who built the business into the integrated company that had everything it needed to succeed in the digital age.
What made you decide to invest in Proto, the consultancy formed by a group of former R/GA execs?
We have this vision of WPP as a creative transformation company and I was impressed by the work they have done with clients like Walmart to transform their business. What makes them special is their ability to envision the future. The example I use is transforming New York’s meatpacking district. If you are the mayor of New York and you hire McKinsey they are going to suggest 10-year tax breaks and to build a university there and attract high-level retailers. And then a group from Ohio takes a disused railway and says, ‘Why not turn it into a garden in the sky?’ That project [The High Line] revitalized a whole region and that is what Proto brings to WPP. Barry [Wacksman] and Saneel [Radia, Proto co-founders] have the ability to find creative solutions that embrace tech for every client. Having that weapon in our armory is important.
It’s been reported you are merging your data operations with GroupM. Can you talk about that?
We have pretty strong data capabilities across WPP but some in different places I think it would better serve our clients to bring it together. Clients are keen to activate first-party data across all their channels, so bringing that together and developing it under GroupM is the right thing to do.
WPP has had a mixed record lately in cross-media reviews. You retained the Boots Walgreens Alliance but missed out on Infiniti.
We won 40 percent more new business in 2020 than in 2019. I think we all know it is going to be a very busy year from a new business perspective. We are really pleased about the Walgreens Boots Alliance; it was a very thorough process and they really focused on our data and technology capabilities. Often when you are an incumbent in a big review some things aren’t going your way, so we are pleased. Our hit rate is somewhere between 45 and 50 percent during the year overall, so we are pretty pleased with our hit conversion rate. The great thing about our business is you win some and you lose some.
There have been so many recent reviews. How has that been to manage?
The thing I felt most bad about is for our people, to be honest, they have just been through a year of COVID and working from home and now there are a bunch of new business pitches on our plate to manage.
How has COVID affected the business?
Nothing will ever go back to the way they were. When things go back to normal, we will have forgotten what normal is like. Everything will change: The way we work, the way we travel, our contact with clients. I have seen more clients in the last year without ever leaving my home. I don’t think it will be about working in the office five days a week, or zero days a week, we will be thinking about how many. There will be a new approach to talent, making WPP more collaborative and that will be some lasting benefit from it. But particularly now people are feeling a lot of the joy has been sucked out of work and the loss of things that make it worthwhile, like seeing your colleagues or going out for drinks makes it harder. So, I’m keen on getting people back in the office as soon as we can.
Your headcount last year was 6.5% below 2019. Do you see that going up now that business is picking up?
Our headcount was down slightly less than our revenue, which was the right way to go given that we expect a pretty strong bounceback in 2021. As the business comes back, we will start to invest again in our people with pay raise and bonus and increases. I would firmly expect WPP’s headcount to be higher at the end of 2021 than in the beginning of the year.
Will you be looking for different skill sets when you hire post-pandemic?
Absolutely. We are still focused on strong creative talent and strong strategists. What we need more of is people who are able to see the whole picture for clients. The people who are most in demand are those that can really help CMOs navigate advertising one day, digital transformation the next—the tech stack, programmatic media. The complexity of marketing has really risen exponentially in the last five or 10 years and as we became more siloed as an organization and as an industry, we had fewer people who were able to see everything. When I look back at Y&R Inc. and the Whole Egg, and think about those people, they used to rotate to Y&R, and Wunderman and Burson Cohn & Wolfe. We need more people like that who can seed that whole conversation with clients. And then there is tech. We need more people who can understand what is happening at Amazon and Adobe and Salesforce … broad-based marketing technology and experience on e-commerce and technology platforms.