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As WPP’s new CEO Mark Read must exorcise the spectre of Sorrell and transform it technologically


By Stephen Lepitak, -

August 31, 2018 | 7 min read

And so as all eyes await white smoke to appear from the rooftop of Farm Street – although that may be the dust unsettled by the removal men as they take the boardroom out. The long-awaited successor to Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP is upon us.

sea containers

WPP's Sea Containers offices

Mark Read was the front-runner for years. Not only did he want the job, but he had the digital credentials and a successful spell at the helm of Wunderman to give him enough clout to be considered.

The Drum has twice awarded him the Digital Individual of the Year prize at The Dadi Awards fully aware that he aspired to take the top job and few were likely to get in his way.

Now he has it, the question is: what can he do with it? WPP is at an almighty crossroads and it’s been sad to see how we’ve arrived here.

The Spectre of Sorrell

Whatever your opinion of Sorrell, he deserved a better send-off than he got earlier this year from the business – a lot of people have made their livelihoods and careers from WPP – and in S4 Capital I suspect he will prove himself once again. At least Read has been respectful to his predecessor and old boss who practically groomed him to follow on (even though it’s been claimed both Scott and Read were the successors in waiting, rather than one individual).

I think WPP underestimating Sorrell was a mistake and I think they know it now. The acquisition of MediaMonks from under their noses would've provided a jolt – it’s a very well-performing business and the perfect start for the new venture under its ‘chief monk’.

Read’s approach and his team

To overcome the long shadow left by Sorrell's departure, Read will need to change the external look of WPP. He will need to make it more exciting and add some sheen to the agency network (nice new website I notice).

As it should, WPP looked outside the business for potential candidates. I understand that there was a desire by chairman Roberto Quarta to bring in an outside figure to lead some sort of revolution and shake things up. A fresh approach was felt necessary.

In Read there is consistency, which I believe is a positive, however he will need to build his own team despite being surround by strong, highly visible figures that are not fully beholden to the personality at the top. I expect we’ll see a formal leadership group developed outside of the board to support Read in decision-making and in external relations too.

Another thing on the to-do list is likely to be sorting out the global leadership of Wunderman and his own successor there. That is an agency brand that is spoilt for choice in the leadership department but – without giving the game away – that will sort itself out. Stemming the senior leadership departures within the London base at Sea Containers (pictured) will be another item on the agenda.

As much as I don't forsee the network following Forrester's advice and dissolving its agency brands, there are still hard decisions to make if changes are to be made, though I don’t sense an appetite for any more consolidation at the moment. I don’t envy Read in those decisions – it is a people business and those changes affect all involved. In time we can expect to see some agency executives come and go and those that come in will likely offer more technological know-how than those who go. That’s vital for the long-term future of WPP and as speculated there will be some to offload in the coming months too, with Kantar heavily speculated.

Read must trust that everyone across the network is behind him and capable of taking WPP back to the heights it previously reached. Those were heady heights too.

His own approach will be interesting to watch. He’ll admit he’s not a natural frontman. The spotlight isn’t where Read wants to be. He wants to get the job done and that is actually forgotten among what is said about him – he gets the job done. And in recent months he has stepped up when required. I suspect we’ll see a new side to him over time if he can become comfortable with the media attention.

He won’t be an Arthur Sadoun however. He won’t shout about new ideas promising to disrupt the business wholesale and cause the industry to applaud or sigh heavily. Sadoun brought fireworks – Read's approach will likely be altogether more subtle and it will be interesting to see how major brands react to it.

New business

Read will already have been hard at work on new business in recent months including defending major accounts under review. The Ford pitch announced earlier this year is an important client to retain at any time, however now it is vital under his stewardship that it isn’t lost in order to retain confidence.

The recent media consolidation of Mars within GroupM and away from network rivals, as well the amount of new business brought in from the Shell review, shows that there is still belief in WPP’s agency brands from the corporate world. That is important to retain as the industry repeats the mantra ‘the network agency model is broken’.

The consultancy threat

Accenture looms larger and larger by the month with Deloitte, PwC and the like behind them. The questions around conflict of interest for auditors to become marking suppliers hasn’t quelled their potential.

That has to come to a head eventually. Accenture isn’t hiring senior advertising figures just to sit about taking journalist interviews and renting massive boats at Cannes Lions for the sun. Brands are interested in the consultancy model – and that’s a problem for all of the networks to respond to.

Industry reaction

I sense the length of time it has taken to announce the inevitable will ultimately help Read to an extent. There won’t be any gasps when he is unveiled in front of an audience – he’d have hated that.

There’s a job to be done and he knows what it is. Keep WPP as an advertising powerhouse and make sure clients are happy, shareholders are kept rich and journalists have copy to file (I think that may have fallen further down the agenda under the new regime, however).

Good luck, Mark.


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