I don’t know Mark Read, which I would estimate puts me in the same position as 99% of those offering him advice on how to do his job as the newly appointed CEO at WPP. Since Sir Martin Sorrell left WPP back in April there had been much fevered speculation over who would succeed him. Many names were mentioned, picked over, and spat out but as far as I can recall only Read was seen as a viable internal candidate.
WPP is a complex business made up of overlapping and even conflicting companies, built at a time when client requirements from their marketing service partners was in a very different place. Back then, size was everything (hence GroupM). The prevailing belief was based on the famous assertion that “no one got fired for hiring IBM.” Most boards knew nothing of communication channels (for appearing on, not consuming), research (boring but worthy), marketing (pink, fluffy and unaccountable), advertising (pink, fluffy, unaccountable and expensive), online (incomprehensible) or social media (something to do with the grandkids).
Courtesy of Sorrell the whole industry became more important, more serious and worth being part of the conversation (if not understood). Just think back to a time when the face of advertising was either someone faceless and American, or Charles Saatchi. It may have been better or worse back then (take your pick) but it was certainly different, and it was WPP and in particular Martin Sorrell who drove the change.
Now we are where we are, with WPP facing client defections, their media operations losing competitively to (in particular but not exclusively) Omnicom, and with several important long-term figures retiring or leaving.
Furthermore, the complicated three-dimensional chess game of handling client businesses across multiple opcos, covering diversified disciplines whilst managing individual P&Ls (“horizontality” as Sir Martin had it) hasn’t really worked.
However, underpinning everything is the fact that WPP still has multiple, sizeable assets. Sure, some may not be as central as all that to any kind of common aim, and some have already been divested (with no doubt more to come) but the group is still mightily impressive.
Everyone knows that the industry is changing and continues to change. Everyone knows that marketers need help navigating the change and thus putting themselves in a position to take advantage of all the opportunities out there both today and emerging in the future.
It stands to reason that what is needed is to refocus WPP on how to make the most of its core assets to serve their clients better over this time of change. Which is a huge strategic question.
As I said up top, I don’t know Mark Read -- but the one thing I do know about him is his reputation as a brilliant strategist. He’s an insider who understands a complicated business, which will save a lot of time at just the moment when the business doesn’t have much time to waste.
He seems a great choice, who ticks all the boxes. I bet he’ll be relieved to receive an endorsement from still someone else he’s never heard of.
Photo credit: Werner du Plessis/Unsplash
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