Eamonn Store is CEO at FairShare, an independent agency, and a former WPP exec
While perhaps anti-climatic, the news of Mark Read’s official appointment to the job he’s being unofficially doing for some months now will likely be welcomed with a cautious optimism from the financial and media community.
The optimism is deserved, as Read is an intelligent, strategic and considered leader, who has an understanding and perspective of the politics and nuances of the WPP leadership hierarchy. On the business side, WPP can expect some more decisive moves. Martin Sorrell seemed increasingly blinded by a combination of ego and denial.
We can expect to see a winnowed WPP leadership group, finally freed from the fiefdoms and self-preserving alliances, with a tighter and more contemporary leadership team prepared to streamline this vast holding company with rational reasoning. We can expect to see this group reform quickly with some much needed mergers of old agency brands that have been in steady decline since the Mad Men era. Y&R into VML is an openly discussed no-brainer. Perhaps some form of merger of JWT into Wunderman and a complete overhaul of GroupM, perhaps even a move towards the re-bundling of media and creative services. Let’s face it, it’s early days but the merger of Maxus and MEC into Wavemaker has not exactly got off to a flying start.
Beyond this much needed reformation, Read has a much greater opportunity as a straight-talking, less egotistical leader to put greater purpose back into marketing communications. WPP has been about only two things: baseline growth and increased margin. It’s why the holding company enjoys something in region of 40 percent staff turnover, with the top 1 percent compensated in a manner that handcuffs them with material wealth but limited personal fulfillment. Meanwhile the young blood has jumped ship for better life balance and hipster ways of the social media giants.
Read has a very real opportunity to open up the windows and refresh this rather stuffy house. A chief purpose officer should sit on a par to agency CEOs to challenge the authenticity of how WPP agencies lead their clients, partners and people. In too many instances the very character that built these great agencies has checked out and been replaced with bean-counters and internally facing politicians. This needs to change. In an industry significantly weakened by transparency issues across the board, straight-talking and jargon-free simplified contractual agreements in clear language can go a long way.
With its media clout and client base, WPP could genuinely solve hunger in America, make a serious dent in addressing the opioid crisis in America, or have a very real impact in addressing one of the greatest threats to society: mental health. WPP can move beyond the rote sustainability reports and instead focus on having a real impact on these issues, such as mental health, that are deeply meaningful and truly resonate with its people and partners. And it can do all of this with profit.
It is abundantly clear that a very significant portion of corporate America is focused on social impact. Changing customer and business partner behavior demands it. Currently, too many good intentions are wrapped up in self-serving corporate comms and retrofitting of existing work into bodies such as the UN Strategic Development Goals. We’ve all seen it. As the likes of Mark Benioff, Indra Nooyi, and Paul Polman have already testified, purpose and profit can work hand in hand. The future of solving societal issues is heavily reliant on profitable commercial progress. It’s not just acceptable but essential for corporate business to do well from doing good.
Now is the time for WPP to step to the front of the pack, to have the most ambitious progressive agenda where purpose has a genuine place at the table alongside profit. It would be a bold move. Alongside its peers, WPP needs to attract and retain the best talent at all levels. Standing more clearly on specific societal and environmental issues will polarize some but will connect more deeply with the 84 percent of employees who claim loyalty to companies who care about their community, according to WPP’s own Kantar.
With patience, the investors and clients that matter will reward this greater ambition, integrity and boldness. With this renewed focus, WPP has nothing to lose and everything to gain.