Wun­der­man global chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Read ex­plains how he is trans­form­ing the dig­i­tal shop, why it’s merg­ing with Pos­si­ble, and what he has learned from Sir Martin Sor­rell. By Gideon Spanier

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WPP veteran Mark Read, global chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wun­der­man, on how he is repo­si­tion­ing the dig­i­tal shop with a cre­ative fo­cus

Mark Read got into ad­ver­tis­ing the old-fash­ioned way: he wrote to Sir Martin Sor­rell and asked for a job. Read had just fin­ished a schol­ar­ship at Har­vard af­ter study­ing eco­nomics at Cam­bridge, and the WPP chief ex­ec­u­tive in­vited him for an in­ter­view.

“I started the week af­ter we bought Ogilvy in 1989,” Read says, de­scrib­ing how he was 22 and “a cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment ex­ec­u­tive, sat in Farm Street work­ing on ac­qui­si­tions”.

Nearly 30 years later, he re­tains a youth­ful air, al­beit with a touch of grey in his hair, and he is still work­ing for WPP.

Apart from a seven-year break span­ning the 1990s and early 2000s, when he worked at man­age­ment con­sul­tancy Booz Allen Hamilton and dot-com start-up Web­trends, he has been by Sor­rell’s side for much of the WPP story.

In­deed, for a while, the wun­derkind of WPP looked like the heir ap­par­ent, be­com­ing di­rec­tor of strat­egy from 2002 and win­ning pro­mo­tion to the board in 2005 at the age of 37. He spent the next decade over­see­ing WPP’S dig­i­tal ex­pan­sion and the ac­qui­si­tion of busi­nesses such as 24/7 Real Me­dia and AKQA.

Read fi­nally got a chance to run an agency him­self in 2015. He quit the WPP board and be­came global chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wun­der­man. The di­rect mar­ket­ing shop had been founded by the Wun­der­man broth­ers in the US in 1958 and be­come part of Y&R in 1973, but it was strug­gling to adapt to an era of data-driven mar­ket­ing and CRM, ac­cord­ing to Read. “It had lost its way,” he says.

Read set about repo­si­tion­ing Wun­der­man as a dig­i­tal agency with a mantra of be­ing “cre­atively driven, data in­spired”. He ad­mits: “We can de­bate how long the word ‘dig­i­tal’ will last, but clients un­der­stand it.”

He talks about “per­son­alised mar­ket­ing rather than di­rect mar­ket­ing” and “get­ting the right mes­sage out at the right time”, al­though he adds: “I’m not sure con­sumers want things to be that per­sonal.”

What mat­ters, he says, is be­ing able to un­der­stand the cre­ative process and com­bin­ing that with a knowl­edge of peo­ple, data and tar­get­ing to drive sales.

Ul­ti­mately, Read claims: “We in­spire peo­ple to take ac­tion. A lot of the suc­cess we’ve had is help­ing clients un­der­stand the whole cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence – on­line and off­line.”

Read’s ap­proach ap­pears to be mak­ing head­way. Wun­der­man “de­liv­ered its best re­sults in five years” and last year won $75m in new busi­ness, in­clud­ing from Dyson, Glax­o­smith- Kline, HSBC and Shell, ac­cord­ing to the WPP an­nual re­port. This year got off to a good start when the agency landed the com­bined BT/EE busi­ness, one of the UK’S big­gest CRM ac­counts.

Read’s em­pire con­tin­ues to grow. WPP an­nounced ear­lier this month that Pos­si­ble would be­come part of Wun­der­man, in­creas­ing its head­count by about a quar­ter to 9,200 staff. The en­larged agency has es­ti­mated an­nual rev­enues of $1.4bn and op­er­ates in 72 coun­tries.

There is logic to the tie-up. Mi­crosoft is the big­gest client for both agen­cies and Read was in­stru­men­tal in launch­ing Pos­si­ble, a merger of sev­eral WPP dig­i­tal shops, in 2011. Pos­si­ble’s roots in Seat­tle help, he adds, be­cause it is close to Ama­zon, a grow­ing force in me­dia as well as com­merce.

Read has also been busy mov­ing Wun­der­man into con­sult­ing. He bought The Cock­tail, a 250-strong dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion con­sul­tancy based in Spain, in June. At the same time, Salmon, WPP’S com­merce con­sult­ing arm, be­came part of Wun­der­man.

He has been spurred into ac­tion af­ter see­ing big con­sult­ing groups such as Ac­cen­ture move ag­gres­sively into mar­ket­ing ser­vices. “We’re com­ing up against them more now than two years ago,” Read says. Dig­i­tal agen­cies such as Sapi­en­tra­zor­fish and R/GA also fre­quently turn up in pitches.

He de­scribes his time at Booz Allen Hamilton as “the most thank­less task I’ve ever done – you’re just a cog in the ma­chine”. Read doubts such busi­nesses can eas­ily dis­place agen­cies be­cause “they are largely driven by anal­y­sis, not imag­i­na­tion”, he says: “We’re a cre­ative or­gan­i­sa­tion. In that, we do truly dif­fer from Ac­cen­ture.”

How­ever, he is not com­pla­cent about the com­pe­ti­tion, ad­mit­ting: “We can’t al­ways com­pete fi­nan­cially, so we have to work harder on other things.”

That has meant in­vest­ing in Wun­der­man’s cul­ture. Read and Judy Jack­son, global chief tal­ent of­fi­cer, have in­tro­duced lead­er­ship cour­ses for women and You Time, an ini­tia­tive to help em­ploy­ees work on their ca­reer and per­sonal de­vel­op­ment. Other lead­ing fig­ures in Read’s team in­clude Mel Ed­wards, for­merly of M&C Saatchi’s Lida, who runs EMEA, and

“A lot of the suc­cess we’ve had is help­ing clients un­der­stand the whole cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence – on­line and off­line”

Cas­par Sch­lickum, who used to be at Xaxis and now heads Asia-pa­cific.

Zaid al-qassab, chief brand of­fi­cer at BT, says: “Like many a great leader, Mark’s lead­er­ship is most no­table in terms of the ex­cel­lent team that he has built.” Read’s col­leagues in­side Wun­der­man de­scribe him as “su­per-quick” and say he “deals with things straight away” when there’s a prob­lem – habits that they think he learned from Sor­rell.

Ad­ver­tis­ing isn’t in the blood. Read’s fa­ther is “an en­trepreneur” and his mother is an or­tho­don­tist. He had a bap­tism of fire when he started at WPP be­cause he looked af­ter in­vestor re­la­tions and dealt with the banks, just as re­ces­sion struck in 1990. “One of the things about Martin is he does let young peo­ple have as much re­spon­si­bil­ity as they can han­dle,” Read says.

It was a hairy time and WPP came close to de­fault­ing on its debt. “I was prob­a­bly in­ex­pe­ri­enced enough not to re­alise how se­ri­ous it was,” he claims, while re­call­ing ex­actly how much the share price plunged.

He had spells at Ogilvy and Hill & Knowl­ton be­fore do­ing an MBA at Insead and then try­ing life out­side WPP. When he re­turned in 2002, Sor­rell gave him dig­i­tal as a brief when it was un­fash­ion­able in the wake of the dot­com bub­ble burst­ing.

Ajaz Ahmed, who sold AKQA to WPP in 2012, says Read was “quick” to em­brace on­line and “con­tin­ued to cham­pion this pi­o­neer­ing spirit” as the medium evolved. “He com­bines the rigour and in­tel­lect of pro­fes­sional ser­vices with the vi­sion of tech­nol­ogy’s po­ten­tial and the be­lief in cre­ative im­pact,” Ahmed says. “Mark is one of the most re­mark­able lead­ers in our in­dus­try.”

Read’s self-ef­fac­ing man­ner means he can come across as dif­fi­dent, but he knows how to net­work – be it with in­vestors at the WPP an­nual gen­eral meet­ing or the Soho House crowd at the House Fes­ti­val, both of which he at­tended this year.

He is “proud” of set­ting up WPP Stream, an “un­con­fer­ence” where clients gather with tech and me­dia big­wigs to pon­tif­i­cate and party in glam­orous spots around the world. It is now a reg­u­lar fix­ture in the Sor­rell cal­en­dar.

Some are en­vi­ous of Read’s close­ness to the WPP chief. “Like Igor to Franken­stein,” a UK in­dus­try fig­ure jokes, liken­ing the re­la­tion­ship to ser­vant and mas­ter in the pre-wun­der­man days.

More se­ri­ously, this agency leader sug­gests the fact that Read has not been a “prac­ti­tioner” is a weak­ness. But oth­ers have risen to the top with­out hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence of the craft, and Read ex­udes en­thu­si­asm when Cam­paign asks, un­prompted, to see some re­cent work and he pulls up videos for In­vestec, GSK and the US navy on his lap­top.

He took a few knocks dur­ing his decade on the WPP board – no­tably in 2011, when 40% of share­hold­ers voted against his pay rise, even though it was a frac­tion of what Sor­rell earned. “I was quite sur­prised,” he ad­mits. WPP last dis­closed Read’s pay in 2014, when he re­ceived £3.4m.

He would still seem a con­tender to suc­ceed his men­tor one day. “I wasn’t aware there was a va­cancy,” Read says, bat­ting away ques­tions about suc­ces­sion and how much longer Sor­rell, who is 72, might stay.

How­ever, there has been a sense in the past two months that Sor­rell is in a hurry to re­shape and sim­plify WPP in the face of slow­ing rev­enue growth. As well as mov­ing Pos­si­ble and Salmon into Wun­der­man, he has merged MEC and Maxus and in­serted Neo@ogilvy into Mind­share.

Read says clients want sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, al­though he doesn’t think WPP has be­come too sprawl­ing. “All large com­pa­nies are com­pli­cated to some ex­tent – as a peo­ple busi­ness, we are prob­a­bly more com­pli­cated,” he ex­plains.

He in­sists the Wun­der­man/pos­si­ble merger isn’t about cost-cut­ting, al­though Shane Atchi­son, global boss of Pos­si­ble, is leav­ing. “Both busi­nesses are grow­ing,” Read says.

Ar­guably, the big­gest prob­lem fac­ing dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing is the cri­sis of trust around fraud, brand safety and mea­sure­ment. What does Read, who also holds the ti­tle of chief ex­ec­u­tive of WPP Dig­i­tal, think? Fraud and ads ap­pear­ing next to in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent is “clearly wrong”, he says, but mar­keters and agency chiefs also “need to ed­u­cate them­selves – I don’t think there’s any­thing that isn’t clear”.

Some mar­keters and me­dia own­ers might not like the fact that lots of in­ter­me­di­aries are tak­ing a cut in the dig­i­tal me­dia sup­ply chain, but it is a com­plex sit­u­a­tion. Read ex­plains: “In the old days, you could ne­go­ti­ate your me­dia plan over lunch at The Ivy. Now you might be buy­ing in­ven­tory on 100,000 web­sites. And there’s a real cost – you can add a lot more value to the me­dia [through data and tar­get­ing].”

How­ever, that doesn’t mean brands should feel it’s just a case of caveat emp­tor – “the agency should pro­tect you”, Read says.

As ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing are chang­ing, Read be­lieves Wun­der­man is on the right side of that shift and it has clearly moved out of Y&R’S shadow. “It used to be about that big idea that was ex­pressed in a brand film,” he says. “Now I think it’s about the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence that’s ex­pressed through the work that Wun­der­man does prob­a­bly more than through a brand film.”

Read just might suit this more mea­sured, less swash­buck­ling era.

Read: ‘One of the things about Martin is he does let young peo­ple have as much re­spon­si­bil­ity as they can han­dle’

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