The last 18 months have been the most tumultuous in WPP's history, with the world’s largest agency network forcing through a succession plan at the highest level, with Mark Read ultimately taking on the chief executive job and implementing an overhaul of the structure of the business.
Under Read, the ethos of the company has already changed dramatically, with less focus on the man at the top, to some extent. Instead, he has depended more on his senior staff around him to help spread the message that it is becoming more focused on client and creative.
The new era for WPP was symbolized late into 2018, with the release of a new logo and corporate website overhauling what had been in place for many years and showcasing a belief that change was needed. This change included major decisions, including the consolidation of agencies such as Wunderman and JWT, VML and Y&R. Rumors that more are set to follow.
With this changing of the guard, it was perhaps no surprise that the reshaping of the WPP ‘brand’ would need a brand guardian, and so came in, perhaps more surprisingly, Laurent Ezekiel as the company’s first chief marketing and growth officer, who had spent 16 years at rival network Publicis Groupe.
Why Laurent? Well, for one thing, he has two degrees in sustainability, which will come in handy as WPP looks to grow its credentials as a company on the side of good when it comes to environmentalism (earlier in the year it was one of many corporates to ban the use of single-use plastic internally.)
The vision of change at WPP
“When we talk sustainability, we really mean it,” exclaims Ezekiel, while speaking to The Drum in his adopted home of New York City where he has been largely based over the last three years.
He goes on to express his and the senior team's excitement at the vision being implemented around ‘creative transformation’: “There is a clear focus on WPP values and our people and there is tangible evidence of WPP being even more focused on our people both in the US and around the world.”
Explaining the newly formed role he has taken on, Ezekiel says he believes that marketing and growth are interlinked and will involve partnerships with associations and events to talk more about WPP.
“We talk about it going from a group to a company… It is genuinely being more client-centric and to be more client-centric, while we are creating fewer, better brands we’re also opening up WPP to our clients. The company is evolving, and the difference is tangible.”
Becoming more visible
In terms of making the parent-brand more visible at industry events, the beach-front presence at Cannes this year, a first for WPP, was a significant statement that the company aims to be more visible to the industry. While it will take business matters to cement a change in fortunes for the business, it won’t hurt it to become more accessible to clients and potential clients to meet and hear from WPP executives.
“If we think about our presence at Cannes, we felt like we should be and deserved to be on the beach next to the Googles of the world, who are great partners to us. We approached that beach thoughtfully in terms of content. That’s a big theme you will see more of," Ezekiel explains.
"You’ll see us approaching some of our partnerships and events with a lot of thought with our clients and what we want to get out of it together. Look at what we put on from Monday to Friday – we started with two sessions on creativity, the first on what it takes to win a Titanium in 2020 and we ended with a session on plastics. Our plan is to be thoughtful about content and dial that up.”
As mentioned earlier, sustainability is set to become a major part of the company’s marketing; “Our goal on plastics is a good example of this (we will drop all single use plastics across our offices by 2020) but we also plan sustainability initiatives such as hackathons and long-term partnership programmes. Our people care and our clients care and it's important.”
WPP’s focus on improving brand recognition around its ‘Creative Transformation’ message will be key, especially as it aims for US growth. Ezekiel admits that local market understanding of the network is a necessity for its success and cites the hiring of Javier Campopiano from FCB Mexico is a sign of progress that it can attract top creative talent there.
“Mark said last year that investment would be put into creative talent and that is a good example of a fantastic leader who is coming into Grey in Europe just months after Adrain Rossie joined as creative chairman in the UK. It’s good momentum in the area we said we would invest in," he says.
The need for growth in the US
However, the need to grow the business in America is great, so what will Ezekiel’s role be in ensuring that happens immediately?
“I spent the last three years in the US, so I have an affinity to the market and understand what is needed. As well as focusing on strengths here in the US, one of our primary focuses in getting back to growth is ensuring US multinational clients understand the power of our network," he says.
"We have the scale to address a global brands’ needs, we have the capabilities and nimbleness required for direct-to-consumer and we are looking to capture more growth in new areas such as commerce, experience, and technology."
He adds: "I’m also excited to see WPP digging in deeper with current and prospective clients in areas like CX, data, and activation. And doing it in the spirit of true partnership and true collaboration.”
Another shift has been the move in New York to move the agencies into one of the World Trade Centre buildings downtown, allowing clients to see the agency brands all in one space, similar to its move in London to place Ogilvy and Wavemaker into the Sea Containers building.
It is at this point that Ezekiel’s phone begins to ring – it is his boss, Read calling late in the evening from the UK. He has a choice to make, and reluctantly he chooses to stick with the interview to discuss WPP's US progress.
“I joined because I am a huge believer in the vision. In a market this size, it may take longer to get the message out and we need to be single-minded about getting out the message of creative transformation into the market and what we stand for, all the things that make that up. Scale matters – we have that scale, it just may take some time to tell the story out here, that’s all," he explains.
He continues, when questioned about WPP’s pulling power against the local might of Omnicom and IPG, to highlight the global reach of the network: “WPP is also established here, but a lot of the global clients will need a strong presence here and a strong presence elsewhere, whether that is India, China, Turkey, Germany or the UK.
"There is no question in my mind that we can win when it comes to bringing together these parts of the world for a global client, so there is definitely a great reason for global clients to work with us from here and elsewhere.”
Still to come...
Asked what he believes needs to continue to change within WPP now, the strategy of consolidation is clearly not yet at an end judging by Ezekial’s focus on further simplification within the business.
“Our leadership has made huge progress in simplifying our company and our offer and that’s really being felt across the organization. Even in the few months, I have been here, the collaboration across different WPP companies and WPP is getting stronger which is important as we move forward," he says.
"We have fantastic agency brands and this will continue and yet we are making it much easier for our clients to get access to the best of WPP when they need it.”
And with the interview coming to an end, Ezekial instantly grabs his phone, leaps off his stool and returns the phone call to Read out of earshot.
If WPP has achieved anything significant in the last year, it has been to build a strong following around its new leader who clearly isn’t finished building a more streamlined network anytime soon.