A letter to Mark Read: WPP is a prisoner of its own mythologies

Dear Mark

You’ve weathered the investor briefing, the dip in share price and the sniping by Sir Martin. You’ve announced a strategic review promising “radical evolution” and vowed to attract new talent.

So why did I feel it fell short? It comes down to this: “radical evolution” sounds like you’re still a prisoner of WPP’s – and the ad industry’s – own mythologies. As WPP emerges from Sorrell’s shadow you need to align with three important trends currently shaping the industry: empathy, autonomy and creativity.

So what does that mean in practice?

1. Feel clients’ pain

The key to empathy is ‘know thy client’. It seems to me that the advertising world feels a birthright to be its clients’ agency of record'. The trade estimates of billings can be eye-wateringly large. Meanwhile, clients are fighting to deeply understand their customers: how everyday touchpoints way beyond marketing and communications add or detract from their brands.

Where are the signs that WPP really understands this struggle?

After all, marketing and advertising no longer call the shots - they are simply part of the customer experience and must compete for investment alongside other touchpoints. This explains why clients such as Vodafone are insourcing rather than outsourcing: when media buying is brought in house, clients can consider it as part of the ‘customer experience mix’, not the ‘marketing mix’.

So explore ways in which WPP can be ahead of its clients’ agendas, and where it fits into the delivery of exceptional customer experience.

2. Get up close and personal

Clients are frustrated with paying top dollar for the opaque creative agency model because they don’t know what they’re paying for. They only see the result and aren’t involved in the process itself. By contrast, Accenture and McKinsey seek to understand their clients better than they understand themselves, spending months on site, working side by side. Meanwhile smaller agencies are able to build exceptionally close relationships where the whole team is directly involved.

Add to the mix Sorrell’s new digital marketing services vehicle S4 Capital, which promises to bypass traditional ad agencies by being more agile, creative and cheaper. The competition has never been keener.

WPP should understand what ‘co-creation’ in advertising might look like while absorbing the client environments more deeply. I’m not talking about the cagency idea coined by Anatoly Roytman. Chief marketing officers are already caged by their marcomms agencies – they don’t need another that is basically just code for consulting cross-sell into other parts of the organisation.

3. Champion autonomy and the integrity of independence

In a world where clients are taking on more of the media buying and customer experience, there is a big role for teams with bold and daring ideas. People who can seamlessly blend technology, creative and research skills, collaborate with clients and produce game-changing work. In an increasingly consolidated world, this means independent agencies.

After all, consultancies are always targeting bigger and broader sales. Holding companies want to be agency of record but often lack the agility or empathy to assemble the right creative talent from their network. Meanwhile, independents often care more, are more transparent and attract the most creative, adventurous clients and talent.

The industry would benefit from WPP letting its brands have the autonomy and voice to do likewise, rather than trying artificially to force collaboration upon them or - worse - telling them to ‘be more creative’.

4. Keep creativity at the heart of what you do

You talk about attracting millennials. Recent consulting acquisitions or the complexities of holding companies suggest creativity is often the first casualty as talent - especially millennial talent - gravitates towards smaller, purpose-driven, independent places that stand for something, do great work and get talked about.

It’s hard to believe in the mission of an agency that ruthlessly reports its numbers month by month and passes on its profit to a holding company. Or in a consultancy where senior execs step up to the stage at Cannes to accept awards, layers away from the creative minds that produced the work.

More autonomy breeds more empowered people and better work. We’ve seen this with a host of companies adopting holacracy in their operating models, or agencies who form ‘coalitions of the willing’ to focus on their clients’ needs, such as The Akin, Into and HCubed. It’s time to loosen the strings and trust creative minds to do the right thing.

5. Get Martin to move over

The advertising and marketing industry will continue to shift, panic, react and evolve. If you can reinvent WPP to become a holding company that champions empathy, autonomy and creativity, and that prioritises clients and its people over shareholders, then you will attract people capable of flexing to meet the challenge of constant change.

You will be on the path to doing something radical. And you might even move Martin off the front page.

John Oswald is global principal at Futurice. He tweets at @guehenno

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