The creation of Wunderman Thompson: is it really the answer?

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The latest in a series of WPP mergers is that between Wunderman and JWT – but is that really what clients need?

A difficult year for WPP

2018 has been a difficult year for communications giant WPP. There was, of course, Sir Martin Sorrell’s sudden and tumultuous departure from the helm of the company, leaving waves of bad feeling in his wake, particularly when he started his new organisation, S4 Capital. Then, in October, it was revealed that WPP was no longer the world’s biggest marketing and advertising services group, slipping below American rival Omnicom for the first time in almost a decade. WPP’s share price has experienced a downward trend over the last year and is languishing at levels not seen since 2011: this is largely blamed on the disrupting influence of Sorrell’s departure and WPP’s struggle to transform the huge group in the face of a rapidly changing media landscape and increasing competition from Google and Facebook.

Simplicity, accountability and scale

So Mark Read, Sorrell’s successor, has a lot on his plate. He needs to ‘steady the ship’ and execute the transformation that will make WPP future-ready, in the face of the company’s own challenges and the challenges facing the wider industry. A major criticism of the industry is that it is bafflingly complex, with agencies, units, sub-units and specialist arms presenting clients with an alphabet soup of agency suppliers. Forrester said that WPP needs to ‘dissolve’ its hundreds of agency brands into a few dozen to ‘meet the CMO’s need for simplicity, accountability and scale’.

Mergers to deliver on the simplification agenda

Read has continued the process of simplification that started under Sorrell, including a series of mergers, including that of Maxus and MEC to become Wavemaker, and Y&R and VML becoming VMLY&R. The latest and most prominent of these mergers is between digital agency Wunderman and renowned creative shop JWT, which, on January 1st, will become Wunderman Thompson under a single P&L. In WPP’s press release on the matter, Mark Read claimed that Wunderman Thompson will be a new ‘creative, data and technology agency’ which will ‘bring together the capabilities our clients are demanding – award-winning creativity alongside deep expertise in technology, data and commerce – in a single organisation.’ Mel Edwards, the Global CEO of the new entity added, ‘To achieve transformative outcomes, clients today need inspiration that is rooted in data-driven insight. WT offers precisely what clients want – better creativity, expertise in data and sophisticated technology skills.’

A new set of competitors?

Interestingly, Wunderman Thompson’s positioning as a provider of end-to-end, data-driven marketing and creative solutions places it in direct competition with not only the traditional media and creative agencies, but with consulting groups such as Accenture and Deloitte who have recently entered the space with an offering that focuses on data, technology and creative.

The modernisation of a legacy brand

While the merger marks the end of JWT, one of advertising’s key legacy brands and one of the few agency names that the general public recognised, it does make sense: there had been a feeling that the creative agency was resting on its laurels rather than embracing a more consumer-centric planning approach. With Wunderman’s digital expertise, JWT’s clients will have access to data-driven insights to inform their creative. What’s more, some of those clients also already use Wunderman’s services, so the simplification argument is even more powerful.

But is it what clients really need?

This merger is being widely viewed as a demonstration of Read’s determination to change the direction of WPP and create a more streamlined, simplified and easily navigable organisation for the benefit of clients – even if the process is at times painful and difficult. However, at ECI Media Management we would question whether it’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks. Does this internal merger and others like it really make the agencies more customer-centric and produce better outcomes for clients? Or is it just better for the buyers? Furthermore, in this era of data and associated concerns around security breaches, transparency and brand safety, will clients continue to allow agencies to handle their consumer data? Can they be sure that it is they and not their competitors who will profit from the insights generated from the data? ECI believes – and indeed recommends – that clients will increasingly bring their data and ad tech in-house in order to truly understand their customers and drive that all-important consumer-centricity; external consultants can be briefed for support when and where it is needed. WPP and others have nodded towards this new consultancy model, but the need is increasingly urgent and the communications giants need to evolve quickly if they are to succeed in this space.

Thumbnail image: Shutterstock

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