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Creative World Creative Rankings Agency Culture

WPP CCO Rob Reilly had to go backward to go forward – and it made all the difference


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

March 11, 2024 | 14 min read

WPP has been named the most awarded holding company on earth in The Drum’s 2024 World Creative Rankings. And chief creative officer Rob Reilly is more bullish than ever on the organization’s creative future.

Rob Reilly

Rob Reilly is a creative powerhouse / WPP

WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, stands out as the torchbearer of creative excellence in The Drum’s 2024 World Creative Rankings – a comprehensive data-driven assessment of the most highly awarded people, companies and campaigns in marketing and advertising. In the results, the British multinational topped the list of most awarded holding companies, while the three most awarded chief creative officers all lead WPP-owned agencies.

The top creative voice at WPP is Rob Reilly, the organization’s chief creative officer, who has made his mark on the industry with big, bold creative campaigns for the likes of Microsoft, Coca-Cola and MasterCard. His leadership style and commitment to keeping creativity at the heart of every initiative have propelled WPP to new heights since he took the post three years ago, joining from IPG’s McCann Worldgroup.

When asked what WPP’s performance in The Drum’s World Creative Rankings this year means to him, Reilly says: “For us, it means a lot to be recognized by data, not just by opinion. This was earned – it wasn’t just editorial staff deciding based on an entry report.”

He’s also pleased by the fact that he feels The Drum’s World Creative Rankings evaluate all kinds of creativity beyond traditional TV ad campaigns. “The best part … is the expansion of what creativity means and all the places you want to see it, like in commerce, in direct marketing and in things beyond film. When you rank [highly] at a prestigious show and platform like The Drum, it’s not just traditional creativity – it’s modern creativity that is being awarded and recognized. That’s valuable because people see it, clients see it, new business opportunities see it, new talent sees it.”

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But his pride is tempered by a clear dedication to business results. He says that he sees recognition for specific campaigns as a byproduct of doing the right thing for clients – rather than a standalone accomplishment.

“Creative excellence is, ‘How do we do the right thing by our clients?’ because the only metric that matters in the end is wildly successful creative ideas that are bold, that lead to wildly successful business results. If you don’t have that, then it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made something great creatively and it wins awards, but it didn’t drive business. The flip side is if you’ve got great business results, but the work wasn’t very good – then you’re not brand-building.”

A command of creative excellence

In Reilly’s estimation, WPP has mastered this balance of delivering high-quality creative work that generates measurable value for the brands who pay for it. It has done so, he suggests, as a result of prioritizing raw creativity above all else. It’s a guiding principle endorsed by leaders across all of WPP’s agencies, which include Ogilvy, VML (the product of the recently merged VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson), AKQA, Grey and others.

“As a system and as a process, we put creativity at the center of everything we do.”

He points to WPP’s work with Coca-Cola as a prime example of this ethos at work. “When we get to do a lot of its marketing, media production, advertising, PR, social, AI, technology, data – and creativity is at the center – you see the results. The work is getting better and better, and more iconic and popping in culture.”

“Coke was one of the most successful companies of last year,” he adds. It’s true: the brand grew 13% last year, more than any of the other 10 largest companies in the world. WPP manages both the creative and media accounts for the iconic cola brand.

The organization’s chief executive officer, Mark Read, is on a mission to make WPP the most creative company in the world, according to Reilly. Last month, Read told The Drum that the holding company’s mixed 2023 financial results were buoyed significantly by strong creative performance out of Ogilvy despite other WPP agencies facing the impact of the tech industry’s slump last spring.

An eye on AI

As it were, Coca-Cola is also a standout example of the company’s ongoing commitment to marrying creativity with technology. From inviting artists from across the globe to create AI artwork for its billboards using Dall-E 2 and GPT-4 to tapping model Winnie Harlow for an AI holiday card campaign late last year, the brand has, with the help of WPP, established itself as a leader in AI-driven consumer marketing.

Though Reilly says WPP has been integrating artificial intelligence (AI) tools throughout its creative and media operations for about a decade, developing AI for both internal uses and client projects is a top priority for the business right now. In January, the company announced a $250m investment in its proprietary AI systems this year, which will be bolstered by an ongoing annual investment ranging from $20m to $30m.

And in his telling, WPP is ahead of the curve already. Its internal AI-driven marketing operating system, WPP Open, is in use across 30,000 of the company’s 100,000 or so staff. The company is also focused on developing AI applications for clients for a variety of purposes.

He predicts that, in the near future, AI literacy will be a standard expectation for professionals in the industry – much as workers had to learn to migrate to using desktop computers and email in the past.

Ultimately, Reilly sees investment in AI as a means by which to augment human-led creativity. “We don’t bet on AI. We bet on human creativity enabled by AI, enhanced by AI.”

Identifying creative growth opportunities

Outside of AI and emergent technology, Reilly sees a handful of promising areas for creative exploration and investment at WPP. “The places that I’m passionate about personally are where I want to see us grow even more.”

One of those passions? The health and wellness sector, where he’s clocked a creative explosion. “Some of the best ideas in the world are coming from the people in the healthcare agencies. More and more, that’s going to be where creativity is going to shine.”

Plus, he believes that bolstering creativity in health and wellness will be a net positive for the world. As he puts it: “When we look at the mission of WPP, [we’re considering] how do we use the power of creativity to build a better future for people, the planet, clients and communities? [I want to] look at our health and wellness brand partners and say, ‘How do we bring more creativity to those sectors?’ When people are like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure I want to work in a health agency,’ I say, ‘Why not? If you’re working on other kinds of industries, you get the chance to affect someone’s life every once in a while. If you’re working in health and wellness, every day, on every assignment, you’re potentially helping people have a better life.’ How awesome is that?”

Commerce is another area in which Reilly sees an abundance of untapped creative potential.

He talks about a recent creative commerce activation for AB InBev’s Águila beer in which the brand, a major sponsor for soccer in Colombia, added four motion-detecting mats on the flanks of the goalposts. If a player missed a shot on goal but hit one of these ‘unofficial goals,’ fans scored free beer.

“I just love people taking things that are normally not thought about and adding creativity to it and making it a real, meaningful part of someone’s [experience],” says Reilly.

Inspiration over authority

In practice, to ensure that creative talent and resources are being allocated effectively, it’s Reilly’s job to work across the holding company with the executives at all of WPP’s companies.

As he explains it: “We don’t have a central creative agency. So when someone says, ‘Rob, we’d love for you to pitch our business,’ I’m like, ‘OK, let’s put together the team, whether it’s one agency or a combination of agencies.’ It’s not like there’s Rob and his group of 20 Swat team members. Our agencies solve the problems. People like myself are here to support, help and hopefully to make things better when need be.”

He describes his leadership style as “much more influence, inspiration and visible leadership [than] authority.”

“You hire great people. You let them do their job without fear of screwing up. They’re adults – they know it’s a results-based business. We have to win business, we have to win in culture, we have to win awards. But if you hire the right people, they’re already self-motivated. I want people inspired, not afraid of me.”

On the flip side, he acknowledges, “I don’t want to disappoint them.” It’s his job, he says, “to be a servant to their needs in a lot of ways.”

Going backward to go forward

In many ways, Reilly senses that he’s gained respect and trust as a leader at WPP and in the industry more broadly because, as he puts it, he’s “done the work.”

“I was one of those classic New York creatives back in the 90s. I was saying all the right things, being in all the right meetings, having all the skills a good creative director should have, but I didn’t quite have the work. I wasn’t working at the hot agencies. I was just working steadily, just going up in my career … but I didn’t have the body of work that you need as a successful creative leader.”

He felt he needed to make a drastic change. “I started over,” he says. He left his post as acting chief creative officer at ad agency Hill Holliday in 2002. He took a demotion and saw his salary more than halved when he joined legendary creative agency Crispin Porter Bogusky as a copywriter.

“I knew that if I didn’t have the work, long-term, I wasn’t going to have the ability for people to follow me. [Creatives] want to look up to leaders that they know have done the work themselves – and have done the famous work, the award-winning work or the famously effective work.”

Though he acknowledges that not everyone is in a position to make such a drastic move (at the time, he wasn’t married and had no children, so felt he could readily accept the risk), the core principle is still his number one piece of advice for young or inexperienced creatives looking to break into the industry. “Follow the work,” he says. “The work is everything. I had all the other skills, but I didn’t have the work. So I went back and got the work and then everything else followed because the work is what gets you respect. It’s easy to fall in love with money and titles, but don’t chase [those things]. Chase the work, chase the places that believe in creativity and chase the people that want to help you get there.”

The growing influence of brands

In Rob Reilly’s mind, the future of commercial creativity is bright.

In so many facets of peoples’ lives, he says, governments and public institutions have failed people. In their place, consumers have found some of that value in brand messaging. “In the last 10 years, brands have really stepped in and made an impact and become meaningful for people.”

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The consumer experience of enduring the Covid-19 pandemic, he suggests, encapsulates what he means. “If the US government went out of business during the pandemic, everyone would be like, ‘Well, it is what it is.’ If a Verizon or Microsoft or a Walmart went out of business, we would have lost our minds – because what those brains stand for is not just goods and services during a time like the pandemic, but stability.”

He anticipates that brands will continue to occupy important functional and emotional roles in consumers’ lives, though he expects consumers will increasingly aim to hold brands accountable for embodying ethical purposes beyond their bottom lines.

As consumer attitudes evolve and brands become ever-more important in people’s lives, Reilly sees the challenge for advertising holdcos and agencies spelled out clearly.

“We are headed into a world where we’re going to have to be even better partners for our clients and help our clients be better partners for consumers. We can talk about technology and all these things, but in the end, how do we help our brand partners be better partners for consumers? And [in that role,] how do we accept the responsibility that we’ve rightfully earned in people’s lives?”

He’s hopeful that WPP will be able to rise to the challenge.

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