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India Plays a Lead Role In Our Global Transformation: WPP CEO Mark Read

WPP CEO Mark Read sees India play an important role strategically, financially, creatively, technologically and also from a people perspective as the company re-engineers its play to be future fit, writes BW Businessworld’s Noor Fathima Warsia.

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WPP named Mark Read its global CEO in September 2018 –  arguably one of the toughest years for the company since its inception three decades ago. The year 2017 had begun seeing a fall and fall of sorts for the company, leading several industry analysts to challenge the very business model of communication, marketing and advertising agencies itself. The towering giant seemed to be struggling like never before and speculations like a company “break up” to “disposing” some parts of its business, to job cutting, or even no longer remaining the number one holding company, were already part of global headlines. 

The holding company’s CEO’s role, which never was easy to begin with, had become tougher, and unlike that of some of its peers such as Omnicom. As daunting as it may sound, it was in this background that WPP, under Read’s leadership embarked on the strategy created to not only turn the company around, but also become future-fit. 

WPP pushed forth it's positioning as a ‘creative transformation company’ and took several steps towards streamlining its agencies to be stronger. It undertook the task of bringing together its several agencies – creative, media, design, PR and the likes – under one roof, in the form of Campuses. The enormity of the move is evident in a market like India, for instance, where WPP has over 11,000 people.  

Numbers indicate that WPP’s new strategy has taken hold as the company reported a return to quarterly organic sales growth for the first time in over a year in October 2019. Coupled with the fact that WPP agencies maintained a steady flow of new business wins globally, Read was able to restore some of the lost confidence. Even though he remains ‘cautioned’ in his outlook for the year ahead, in a conversation with BW Businessworld, Read reiterates that India plays a significant part in WPP’s global transformation.


India has always been an important market for WPP. But 2019 was a year of muted growth in the country. Does this impact your overall expectations in any form?

India is our seventh biggest market, and the fifth largest economy that is still growing. We continue to see India play an important role for our global transformation strategically, financially, creatively, technologically and also from a people perspective.

We have a strong business play globally and there are areas we can grow further. India will play an important part in achieving this. For instance, we are working on making India a technology base for us globally. This is a big opportunity as we work to build one platform based in India. Another example is leading creatively, case in point being a leader like Piyush (Pandey), who is the global chief creative officer of Ogilvy.

The headroom for growth in India is massive. As the Indian economy grows, advertising will play its own role in contribution to country growth. At present, it is about half a per cent of GDP in India and one per cent in most of the more mature markets. But India is one of the few markets where traditional and digital media are both growing. Given the burgeoning middle class, there will be continued growth, and digital ad spend will grow at 25-30 per cent. Logically, ad-spend-to-GDP will catch up and will continue the growth opportunity.

The strategy we embarked on this year sits well in this. With creativity and technology as the two main pillars, we will invest more in communication, experience, commerce and technology. The latter three are marked to grow 10-15 per cent, outpacing industry growth.

Speaking of the new strategy, what are probably the top one or two priorities in your agenda towards ensuring that it continues to play out and deliver in the long term?

Our main challenge is turning around the business in the US, while maintaining leadership in markets like India. My personal agenda in the year was to grow the US and focus on creativity. 2019 is the first year of executing the strategy, and India was the first country I had travelled to, to spell the strategy out. At the end of the day, it is important to do great work.

WPP is a creative transformation company. We had moved away from a pure agency-model business a long comtime ago. WPP client teams, that are teams created from different WPP agencies dedicated to a single client, oversee the complete marketing mix. We don’t just recommend on the basis of studied data and observations like say consulting companies tend to do, but also from our experiences. Creativity is in our DNA, and it enables us to have a vision of the future. Creativity is critical to every WPP company and it is the responsibility of every person in the company.

The merged entities of Wunderman Thompson or VMLY&R was the right way to signify the future direction of the company and for the people. A brand is what you make it. This is not to say that people in former Wunderman were not creative or that people in Thompson did not understand digital. In fact, they would be offended if this was implied. We in fact want to end the compartmentalisation or the label of digital - there are no analogue or digital consumers. We are not in the business of a creative agency or a digital agency. This is also where the culture to cement collaboration comes in play.

Was this also why we are seeing WPP Campuses being set up in many countries?

Culture matters and so does location. We have moved people in campuses including in India. The level of collaboration grows exponentially when you put them together. When you integrate like this, the results are there for all to see. Integration does not mean a change in P&L (profit & loss) – P&L is more about measuring where to invest rather than using it to reward people.

Culture should be open, optimistic and extraordinary. Open means to partner well with clients, ecosystem partners and each other. There can be no conflict when working together. Even something like media choice is much more important today in the overall creative idea. The way a brief is given has changed due to this. Leadership and talent that works together is imperative.

And is this where the role of the WPP Country Manager comes in?

WPP is strong, and there are strong brands inside WPP. This is true globally and in India. We want fewer brands than in the past but stronger brands. The role of the country manager, in the case of India that is Srini (C.V. L. Srinivas), is to do in India what we are doing globally. This is to work with local leaders to strengthen the brand.

We have to make WPP collectively successful in India by making sure we have the best leadership, work together for the benefit of our clients, attract the best talent, and also ensure the best in acquisitions and other forms of growth. Our global clients, that are largely MNCs, want us to coordinate activities in India to resolve inevitable issues.

Does it sometimes worry you that most recent examples show marketers are setting the industry agenda or making a move towards change instead of agencies?

Our clients still trust us, but we may be at fault of not marketing ourselves well. We have to recapture our confidence. This is not the same as arrogance or complacency to change. Clients want us to change to be simpler to navigate, collaborate more, and invest in creativity and technology. We are doing this.

Marketers are transforming their businesses and are keen to move as quickly as we want to. There is a great sense of urgency and action from clients to innovate, move to digital media, look to commerce, and this is true across all markets.

One of our largest clients in India had said to me, ‘if WPP is successful, we are successful’, and I replied the same is true the other way around as well. This is a people and technology business. We need to invest in both, but the nature of our business is such that we don’t see results overnight. We have to do fantastic work; results will follow.

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