WPP's Mark Read wants more focused diversity initiatives: ‘We probably have too many’

WPP CEO Mark Read

WPP’s chief executive Mark Read plans to introduce more ‘group-wide’ diversity and inclusion initiatives, saying more needs to be done from the top to improve the holding company’s culture and diversity statistics.

By-and-large, its agencies, which include GroupM, Grey and Ogilvy, have been given the autonomy to develop their own programmes to address diversity issues.

During her tenure running Maxus, Lindsay Pattison, now WPP's chief client officer, launched ‘Walk the Talk’, which was later adopted by Read's old agency Wunderman. JWT, meanwhile, introduced a ‘diversity council’ under the leadership of Tamara Ingram after the agency’s former boss Gustavo Martinez was sued for allegedly making multiple "racist and sexist slurs".

Grey London rebranded for 100-days last year to mark the beginnings of a five-point diversity plan it was working against, while Ogilvy partnered with Kat Gordon and the 3% Movement for a plan that would see 20 women hired into creative roles.

While commendable, Read said there’s a danger the company will get what he dubbed “initiative-itis” with too many individual, small-scale programmes not doing enough to move the dial.

“We do many different things within different WPP companies to tackle gender diversity in the organisation and maybe that's part of the problem,” he said. “We have initiative-itis. Part of what we need to do [at WPP] is to standardise [across agencies] and roll out some bigger programmes.”

Read’s comments came at an event hosted by industry group Women in Advertising and Communications London (WACL) to launch a report into the industry’s gender ‘leadership gap’.

The study into nearly 600,000 people in the marketing, media and communications sector, conducted by LinkedIn, revealed a 'leadership gap' of 14% between men and women in the industry's top roles.

Read was reticent to pin any one thing that WPP can do to fix its own problems but acknowledged more needs to be done: “If I look at the progress of WPP over the past five years, I would say it's good but not good enough. We need to do more,” he admitted.

Clients have been a large driving force for much of its change until now. Read said more are asking to see its diversity plans and the steps it’s taking to achieve gender parity at the top level.

Diageo, for example, has previously said that it is asking for such plans but has been disappointed by the response from some.

‘Reshaping culture’

On the road to achieving gender parity, Read wants a wider revaluation of the culture, or rather the lack thereof, that was fostered within WPP under predecessor Sir Martin Sorrell.

Sorrell grew WPP by building and acquiring myriad agencies, resulting in the holding arguably lacking a 'brand' outside of Sorrell's personality.

In the later years of Sorrell's tenure, his ‘horizontality’ agenda brought rapid, and mass, consolidation of these agencies as well experiments with ‘dedicated’ models for clients which saw talent plucked from different agencies to work together.

Though the goal was, and remains, to bring the group closer together into a more unified offering, work is still to be done to convince its 130,000 global employees of Read's plans for a more "collaborative" group.

“We need a much greater focus on culture inside the organisation,” Read said, citing it as a key concern as it works out how to retain, and attract, talent into a company where 50% of its workforce is under the age of 28.

“It was a word we weren't really comfortable talking about and so a lot of what I want to do is drive it towards being a much more inclusive and collaborative culture.”

But talk of a “collaborative” agency group may ring hollow to some.

The WACL event was hosted at Ogilvy’s UK head office just days after all of the 1,200 staff were offered voluntary redundancy.

Ogilvy UK pointed to its "transformation" strategy as the cause, which has seen it dismantle sub-brands such as Ogilvy & Mather, Ogilvy One and Ogilvy Public Relations in order to reshape itself as one combined agency.

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