New WPP chief hits the ground running

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WPP has filled its CEO vacancy – and there’s a lot to do.

A popular choice to fill big shoes

Since Martin Sorrell’s acrimonious departure from the top job at WPP earlier this year, there has naturally been speculation around who would replace him. Charismatic and combative, and the chief architect of WPP’s growth from a wire and plastics company into the world’s largest advertising company, Sorrell left big shoes to fill.

WPP announced this week that those shoes have been filled by Mark Read, who had been running the organisation on an interim basis, alongside Andrew Scott, since Sorrell’s departure. Read is a popular choice both within WPP and among shareholders, and was the leading internal candidate for the role. He has a proven track record in running WPP digital agency Wunderman, as well as in digital leadership and as a board member from 2006 to 2015. He is viewed as a steady pair of hands and someone who can hit the ground running – perhaps less charismatic and pugnacious than his predecessor, but that is widely seen as a good thing.

Read has industry challenges to contend with…

Read has his work cut out for him. The day after his appointment was announced, WPP suffered a sharp drop in share price, and the company recently announced a somewhat mixed set of results, with a small Q2 global revenue growth of 2.4% but a continued decline in its North American business, which dropped by 2.9%.  WPP is suffering from many of the same problems as its industry peers, including navigating the seismic shifts that the advertising industry is experiencing thanks to rapidly advancing technology. Many clients are looking to take at least some of their marketing activity in-house, forcing agencies and in particular media agencies to re-examine what the future looks like. Those that aren’t yet taking their activity in-house are simultaneously cutting costs and demanding greater transparency in the wake of brand safety scandals and the like. Furthermore, a new generation of competitors is springing up: not just the small boutique and niche agencies, but also in the form of companies such as Accenture and other consultancies, who are establishing capabilities in high margin marketing services such as data and programmatic

…and in-house problems too

Read’s challenges aren’t just those faced by the advertising industry at large: WPP has its own set of unique issues to resolve. It is famously huge, with hundreds of agency brands across the world, more than could ever be needed to manage conflict and who indeed often compete with one another. The many P&Ls

make it unwieldy and, crucially, ‘impenetrable to understand’ for clients, in Read’s words. This is a major cause of concern for some of the group’s key clients such as P&G and Unilever, while Ford – WPP’s biggest client – announced earlier this year a review of its global creative business, currently handled by GTB, the dedicated agency established by WPP for the automotive brand.

‘Radical evolution’ is needed

In response to WPP’s issues and in order to future-proof the organisation, Read has announced a ‘radical evolution’ strategy that will streamline WPP’s structure, consolidating some of the 170,000-strong workforce across 112 countries and 3000 offices. As Read said, “WPP needs to come closer together, not further apart. There are many good things about the business. It is a question of simplifying the offer, refocusing the portfolio and investing more in data and technology alongside creativity.”

Read has ample experience in the digital side of the WPP business, and his transformation strategy includes turning WPP’s approach to how it works with data and tech on its head. He recognised that, in a world where the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Alibaba own the lion’s share of consumer data, the most realistic way for WPP to monetise its data capabilities is to effectively borrow data from the tech companies and charge clients for data consultancy, rather than execution. GroupM agency MediaCom is already progressing in this area.

Other elements of Read’s approach include actively helping clients take elements of their marketing in house by consulting on the strategy rather than focusing on the execution; and management of their data investment or research portfolio – it appears likely that Kantar Media could be sold in the not-too-distant future.

The keys to success: steady hands and an open mind

Mark Read is stepping to the fore at a time when strong winds are buffeting WPP and the wider advertising industry. However, a combination of steady hands at the helm and a willingness to transform the organisation’s structure and model could well be just what WPP needs to stay on course.

Thumbnail image: Shutterstock.com

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