Cannes Lions

Mark Read, contender for Sorrell's old seat: WPP 'clearly' needs a new beating heart

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Mark Read.
Mark Read. Credit: Wunderman

Wunderman Global CEO Mark Read was thrust into the spotlight in April, when WPP announced that CEO Martin Sorrell was stepping down amid an unspecified allegation and that Read and his colleague Andrew Scott would step in as chief operating officers.

Read had been floated in past years as a possible successor to WPP's iconic leader, but WPP always remained quiet about its potential future leadership. As far back as a dozen years ago, Read was considered to be one of Sorrell's "right-hand men."

We met with Read at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to ask him about WPP's future, gender equality and what he thinks about Sorrell saying his new venture won't compete with WPP. This conversation has been edited.

What's your goal here at Cannes?

It think it's about spending a bit of time with our people. The great thing about Cannes is it's a great opportunity to reconnect with people—we're always on the lookout for great talent for WPP. So that's one thing. Secondly, in support of our creatives. They do a lot of work in the runup to this. You forget what it means to a creative to win a Cannes Lion. We might say there are a lot of them, but it's not an easy thing to do.

This is my 11th or 12th time at Cannes. It's changed a lot since then. There's a lot of pressure in our business on cost and efficiency and everything else. We need to currently ask ourselves a question of "Are we getting value from our money for doing this?"

So, you've had a big couple months...

It's an amazing company, amazing opportunity. We'll see. Obviously Andrew and I have been appointed chief operating officers, so we're in a little bit of a transition phase. I sort of stuck my hand up—if that's the right word—for the permanent job. The board wants to make a decision as quickly as they can. They obviously know what they need to do, and to do the right thing to do for our clients and our people.

But in the meantime, we're not standing still. Ours is not an industry where you can sit back and wait for things to happen. There's definitely continued momentum in the business. I don't think it's a position that can be left unfilled for an extended period of time. But I think Andrew and I can provide the leadership the company needs in the interim.

Someone asked us the question: Does WPP need a new beating heart? Clearly it does. Whether that beating heart is one individual or something different is a question we need to ask.

Do you mean a different kind of leadership structure?

Us and our peers are all broadly the same structure. I have no doubt that WPP can survive and prosper without Martin at the helm. Does that mean that whoever comes in will structure and manage the business in a slightly different way? I'm sure they will.

What would that look like with you? How would you restructure?

Restructuring is too radical a word. We sort of laid out stuff at the Annual General Meeting: We need to be more client-centric, and more focused on our clients. And more focused on them than on us. When I talk to clients, they want to have simpler access to all of WPP.

How about offloading assets?

We have agreed with the board, we'll look at kind of Kantar and we'll get to that I guess when a new CEO is appointed as a part of the strategy. I can see strong advantages to having Kantar within the group, but we need to look at what creates the most value for shareholders.

We've also said we need to reduce our leverage, but our focus is actually going to be working through what we have from an associate investment perspective. We've been very successful in that area. And maybe, from an investment perspective, now is the time to sort of look at that, review that. Not to say we won't continue to make investments, but I think there is a natural life cycle in that, where our role diminishes and the companies stand on their own two feet.

You talked about retiring the term "horizontality," which describes the WPP practice of building custom shops for clients by drawing from multiple agencies in your portfolio. What will that look like?

Horizontality is a lot about us, and a lot about people thinking about organizational structure. That's not a strategy, really. So how do we make it clear to people what behaviors are expected, how they should work together?

Location plays a big role in it. I think we need to be much more flexible about co-locating teams and much more flexible about locating teams on clients. If clients are in-housing resources, I think what clients find the most attractive about that is the physical proximity. So why aren't we doing that?

Historically, agencies have thought, "Oh, I have to be here and I have to control them and they have to sit here," but we need to think about things in different ways, learn from the consultants. How do they approach it? Accenture has plenty of people that sit around on-site in client offices, so we should do the same.

You're doing a panel on men and women working together. What do you anticipate talking about?

Clearly, there are issues in the business world, in the marketing world, in society as a whole, in the relationships between men and women in offices that we need to fix. And do better at. I'd say that's what I'm committed to doing at WPP when I'm in this position. Respect is at the heart of it.

I've made it a big focus of what I've been doing at Wunderman in the last three-and-a-half years to promote women in the organization and I think we've made quite a lot of progress. Roughly half of the business from a P-and-L perspective is run by women. I think it's been tougher at the agency CEO level to make the changes we need to make, which is probably reflective of most organizations, if you like.

There has been a mixture that has been largely about trying to create a movement inside the organization for change. I think in a sense that's what we want to do inside WPP. There's not one thing we can do.

At WPP's annual general meeting, WPP leaders cited Sorrell's claim that he didn't see his new venture as competition for the company. Are you really not keeping an eye out for that?

I'm really focused on WPP more than I am on what Martin is doing. So we'll see.

What are you doing to retain Ford's creative business, which went up for review earlier this year?

We're working closely on the review. It's an important relationship, good people on it, and demonstrate what we can do to the clients. We know we need to be radical and listen to the client in the way we respond.

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