'The Indian market will develop very differently than elsewhere': Mark Read, WPP
In an interview with Prasad Sangameshwaran of Campaign India, Mark Read, CEO, WPP outlines the future of the company and the business of advertising
Feb 11, 2019 12:53:00 PM | Article | Prasad Sangameshwaran
What are the things that you focus on getting right when you take over from a high profile CEO?
There have been three phases in the six months in office so far. April to September was the interim phase and from September to December it was really about working on the strategy. Now it’s about really focusing on the execution. That’s what I think about the amazing responsibility to lead WPP.
But how do you manage expectations with the constant pressure of being compared with your predecessor?
My job is to ultimately set the direction of the company and communicate that to our people and help them do their best work. We set out on this major transformation exercise where we need to focus our investments on not just communications but also experience, technology and commerce and also look at the steps we need to take internally to make the business more client focused, simplify our structure to make it easier for clients to navigate and bring our strengths together in markets like India.
How will WPP agencies operate differently in markets like India, than they did in the past? In the case of merged entities like Wunderman Thompson or VMLYR, there is not too much equity for brands like Wunderman in this market.
What we need to do in India is to continue to build on the strengths that we already have. I do not want to drastically change the direction but build on strengths like the quality of our people, relationships with clients, breadth of expertise that we have. At the same time we should also recognise that we became a little too complicated, too much of our business is in silos, we probably had too many brands, which was hard for clients to navigate. We tried to silo traditional and digital. Hence the desire to bring VML and Y&R together or Wunderman and JWT. We looked both companies and their relative positions in some markets. In some markets, Wunderman is bigger than JWT and in others JWT is bigger. So whatever you do, on day one it may make less sense to people. But this is really about bringing people together and is about merging the companies and not a takeover. We want to build on the combined strengths and heritage of both brands.
In some ways what you are doing is moving this business from a cottage industry to the industrialisation of media. What are some pre-conditions to make this shift happen?
What we are trying to say is that there must be more standardisation in what we do around technology, processes, around location. If you bring something together, you can standardise it then you can automate it and then you can apply AI to it. If we remained a cottage industry that would never happen. There would be some structural changes in how we organise ourselves.
In parallel are you also instituting disaster recovery (DR) sites to act as a back-up in case of exigencies?
Increasingly our infrastructure will be based on the cloud. So that disaster recovery will be in-built into the cloud.
How is the WPP journey towards creative transformation different than what is happening across the industry?
What we are trying to do is build on our traditional strengths in creativity and combine them with transformation across data, process, technology organisation. The group will come much more closer. Ultimately, it’s about how well we execute and how well we implement the strategy. I am focused on that.
You have had a stint with Booz Allen Hamilton and seen the consulting organisation from inside. If advertising goes the consulting way, will creativity take a backseat in that journey?
I am very familiar with how consulting operates and they are very different from WPP companies. I am absolutely firm that creativity cannot take the back step in our business. Actually, creativity is what makes us special, distinct, what makes us deliver results to clients and that’s our secret weapon. We will always be different from the consulting firms. We might be a little more like them than we are today as we study what they are doing more carefully. But the WPP strengths lie in our creative heritage, in our ability to imagine and create the future and not just studying what is happening today.
You have said that there are certain terms like ‘e’ and ‘digital’ that are banned within your organisation. Why?
There was a time when it was helpful to use these terms. Now we are in a period where we are much more specific about what we mean and also if you have certain parts of your company that are digital, it implies that there are certain other parts of the agency that are analog. We need to integrate that. Consumers integrate that. Clients want to integrate them. We have to organise in a much more integrated fashion. At the end the success of WPP will be our ability to give clients ideas and work that cut across all channels that just being digital is not enough.
In your example of Sainsbury’s you spoke about WPP companies getting involved even in areas like planning logistics – things that agencies have never done before. Are we seeing the business of advertising becoming just one part of the offering in the future?
If we see the process of creative transformation as transforming a client’s business through communication, experience, commerce and technology, by definition advertising will be the part of a larger whole.
The next generation of leaders within WPP will be the people who have the ability to understand all of those four areas and bring them to the client. We are engaged on training people in preparing for that.
You have also spoken about running WPP as a company, as opposed to a group. Could you elaborate on that approach?
What we want to do is really bring the company closer while having strong brands like Ogilvy, Wunderman Thompson, Group M, but we certainly need to work together as one company. That is the sense of what we are trying to do.
Speaking of automation as a way of life in this business, does this work in a business that’s seen as a combination of art and science?
It will always be a business of art and science. If we lose sight of that, we will stop being successful.
But where is the art in automation?
Facebook will be nothing without the content that goes down. Technology is nothing without the content that powers it. Netflix is nothing without the content that sits on it. Technology is important. Ultimately, it is ideas and the quality of ideas that really count.
Finally, what is your message for Indian advertising?
It’s a fantastic and vibrant industry and I really want WPP to be at the heart of it. What makes India very interesting is that both traditional and digital media are growing and I suspect that it will develop in ways that will surprise people. People who expect that to continue will be surprised with the disruptive force within that. The market will develop differently than elsewhere.