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Advertising WPP Sir Martin Sorrell

Mark Read on his baptism of fire in charge of WPP and where the group goes next


By Stephen Lepitak | -

June 19, 2018 | 9 min read

"It's been eventful," says Mark Read of the tumultuous two months that has seen he and Andrew Scott named joint chief operating officers of WPP following the resignation of the company's chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell.

mark read of wpp

Mark Read, joint chief operating officer of WPP.

Long tipped to succeed Sorrell, Read is a very different individual to the erstwhile chief executive, perhaps more cautious and collected, and he admits that he aims to be more approachable in his leadership style.

While the search for the new chief executive goes on, Read is steering the management responsibilities of WPP while Scott takes on the financial side.

"We have to develop and communicate a strategy for how we are going to grow in the future, that is what we have been focusing our time on," Read replies when asked what the pair needed to prioritise when taking the reins of the world's largest agency network.

"There have been some practical things that we needed to do in terms of talking to people and talking to clients, but it's about balancing the need to develop a long-term growth strategy for the business and [the] short-term practicality of taking over with Andrew to run a large organisation and everything that goes with that."

The former Wunderman global chief executive is always a composed figure, and takes his time before answering questions while speaking to The Drum at Cannes Lions where he will be involved in a number of panel sessions during this year's festival.

He says of his partnership with Scott that, as the two have worked together for years and are personal friends, they are "performing well for two people placed in such a situation".

Indeed they do appear to have stabalised in the short term a company which had seen its share price decline heavily in recent times.

"We owe it to the people in the company to do the best we can," says Read of the work they are carrying out. "We are starting to outline what we need to do. The focus has been on providing continuity to the organisation while starting to develop a strategy. We are not rushing into making changes although there are a number of things that we need to change to set out the direction, but for the organisation we need stability, not change, but with a sense of direction for the future.

"There is a careful balance between making sure that we continue to deliver to clients, that the work continues to be good and that we continue to do well in new business. At the same time we need to lay the groundwork for the next chapter of WPP which you'll see over the next few months."

While further consolidation isn't entirely ruled out within the network, following the merger of agencies into Wavemaker and Superunion in the last 12 months, Read states that it is not his preferred strategy for now.

"It's right that we go through a simplification of the offer and making sure that each of the companies has a strategy for growth in the current environment," he explains. "So there are a number of things that we need to do that revolve around how each of our organisations develops the right growth strategy for the future."

He acknowledges, however, that the world's biggest marcomms group does need to change to befit clients' needs today.

"The direction of travel is clear," he states. "Clearly the demand from clients is for what I call 'a more flexible approach' from their agencies; being quicker, less costly, more integrated."

That integration, he believes, is already visible within the business with various elements of the marketing mix such as digital, social media and advertising now combining to make it difficult to know which agency brand generated which idea.

"I do think that the output of the agencies is converging, if not the skills of the agencies themselves. That's something that we are going to need to think through. You have seen that with the recent restructure of Ogilvy to try and make it easier for people to collaborate within that structure so clearly we are going to have to look at, if not the structure of WPP, how we make it easier to work together within the group.

"Clients are looking for a much more radical approach; they don't want their television commercials to be 10% less, they want them to be 80% less. So we are going to have to think about different ways of producing things," he continues.

Read also believes that in order to achieve the lowering of costs, more multitasking is likely to be adopted by the industry as a whole.

"We do all have to learn to do things in different ways. We are going to have to look at what we do in terms of cost more radically and then we will have to look at what we do from a data perspective. At Wunderman we had a lot of success working very closely with Adobe and that should be true across all of WPP so I would like to push that further.

"On the data front we need to get much better at collecting data; what I hear from clients is not that they want us to own lots of data, they want us to use their data in our marketing, that is what they really care about, using their data to target out work and to measure results. We need to more to an environment where, if they are doing data much more in the work that we do in the right time. And then work with the other partners to set out a positive vision for the industry to set out a positive vision to work together to solve problems.

"We are trying to get to the same place where clients can reach their consumers effectively with ideas at the right price, agencies attract the best talent who want to work on those client problems, content companies can get funding to make really great content, technology companies can also prosper in that environment, they can have the right type of content on their platforms and manage the privacy and data issues properly. That requires a collective response."

Read chuckles when asked how he is 'enjoying' his new role and what it is affording him the opportunity to execute within the business.

"We have some fantastic people around us and it gives me the chance to reconnect with people across the group. Actually there is a very good spirit across the leadership of WPP. We are optimistic about the future. We do see things we can do better. People are looking for change. It's a transition phase. I'm not going to say that it's not slightly strange but I do think that we do with respect."

He is less comfortable when asked about his own leadership style, and comparisons to Sorrell, though evidence of his methods is starting to come to the fore. Last week he sent an all-staff memo reminding colleagues of the company's values following newspaper reports alleging Sorrell had a reputation within WPP for bullying junior staff. Sorrell has denied such reports and it's behaviour that Read has previously said he does not recognise of his former boss, who was famously driven and always involved with the business.

"To some extent WPP will by definition have a different type of leadership now Martin is no longer there and that type of leadership will be more collaborative in style and it will help to bring the organisation together more," Read said. "We need to do it in a different way.

"I like to think that I work with people to bring the best out of them and to work collaboratively with them. I think I am clear on the overall direction where the people around me understand what it means and what they need to do to be successful within that. The type of company that we are matters to me, the way people are treated, the way what happens when you come to work, I've always felt that. That is important and certainly when I ran Wunderman I was keen to push women more in the organisation."

During his time at Wunderman, Read promoted Mel Edwards to EMEA chief executive, while Becky Chidester was the chief executive of Wunderman Health and Martha Hiefield became the chief executive of Possible Americas. But there is work to do to improve diversity within WPP as a whole.

"We're not doing well enough at office-level and that is another topic that I am keen to pursue," he adds.

At the time of writing, it is unclear when the next chief executive of WPP will be named. Chairman Roberto Quarta has indicated that it will not be until late summer at the earliest, but for now it seems the business has found a leader, even if in the short-term, who holds its prospects for the future and the wellbeing of the staff who will help shape those prospects dear.

Advertising WPP Sir Martin Sorrell

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