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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Mark Read to take top job at WPP as company reshapes business 

Mr Read could be named the company's second chief executive on Tuesday when WPP publishes first-half results

Mark Read, new CEO of advertising agency WPP, aims to wipe the slate clean. Reuters 
Mark Read, new CEO of advertising agency WPP, aims to wipe the slate clean. Reuters 

The unassuming Mark Read will take on the unenviable role of running WPP this week, tasked with reshaping a group at the centre of seismic industry change following the departure of the world’s most high-profile advertising boss, Martin Sorrell.

Mr Read, a 51-year-old with experience across strategy and digital operations, is expected to be named WPP’s second-ever chief executive in the coming days after persuading the board he has what it takes to lead the world’s biggest advertising company.

Mr Sorrell quit the British group in April following a complaint of personal misconduct, which he denied, and after a year-long sharp downturn in trading sparked by cautious clients and competition from Facebook, Google and new consultants.

Mr Read, appointed to run the business as a joint chief operating officer until a permanent chief executive was found, told Reuters in June that WPP needed radical change to remain relevant to clients but that they could evolve their way there, suggesting a review of some assets but no major break-up.

Clients, current and former WPP executives and analysts have said they also expect a programme of evolution, not revolution, slowing down the hunt for acquisitions and re-engineering the agencies.

“For any leader coming into any business the most important thing is to have respect,” said Jon Williams, a former chief creative officer at WPP agency Grey.

“Because of Mark’s operational delivery and because he’s got a personal relationship with a lot of the business leaders, he’s got that respect. He can hit the ground running.”

Mr Sorrell built the world’s biggest advertising and marketing services company by taking over some of the most storied names in the industry – JWT, Grey, Ogilvy and Y&R – and combining them with PR agencies, market research and media planning groups.

Headquartered in London, it now owns some 400 businesses around the world, set up to compete with each other for work.

That has fallen out of favour with clients, however, as they want fewer teams providing an array of complementary services, rather than multiple teams and multiple strands of work.

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Read more:

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WPP requires total overhaul after Sorrell's shock exit, says stand-in chief

Thirty per cent of WPP shareholders object to ex-CEO financial package

Martin Sorrell quits as head of WPP advertising agency

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Mr Sorrell had already talked about the need to break down barriers, but Mr Read is expected to go further. He and his co-chief operating officer, Andrew Scott, have been asking WPP executives what works and what doesn’t since they stepped up in April.

“He’s listened, he’s gone out of his way to make sure people understand that he wants to be collaborative, that he’s a peer,” the chief executive of one WPP agency said.

“He knows the business as well as anyone, having been at the right hand of Martin all this time. And he knows that the solution to our future is not these acquisitions that keep feeding the growth.”

Mr Read, a father of two young children, strikes a very different pose to Mr Sorrell, who he wrote to asking for a job in 1989.

Where Mr Sorrell was an outspoken chief executive, commenting on everything from the Chinese economy to influencers on Instagram, the soft-spoken Mr Read adopts a lower profile, trying to avoid photographers at the end of the recent annual general meeting.

Like Mr Sorrell a graduate of Cambridge University and Harvard, Mr Read is described by colleagues as a good listener and delegator, with no obvious ego. When talking to journalists he takes time to think before answering questions.

The chief marketing officer of one of Britain’s biggest companies said Mr Read should not be underestimated.

He relayed how Mr Read, when running WPP digital agency Wunderman, had approached him to explain what he could provide if and when they next put their ad contract out to tender. He stayed in regular touch – a job normally farmed out to more junior staff – and 18 months later Wunderman won the deal.

“He is an incredibly personable, collaborative, non-aggressive individual who prefers to work through his acumen, his intelligence, his intellect, not through his relationship and networks,” the chief marketing officer said.

Mr Read will need all his acumen to hand when he takes over the top job, perhaps on Tuesday, when WPP publishes first-half results, knowing that Mr Sorrell, a large WPP shareholder, will be watching after he launched a new competitor.