Stephen Lepitak

A blog from The Drum's editor, Stephen Lepitak, covering reaction to events in media, social media, marketing, advertising and communications in general.

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WPP’s next chief executive: the case for Mark Read

On the evening of April 14 two statements were released, one by WPP and the other by its talisman, Sir Martin Sorrell, both explaining the surprise decision that he had chosen to stand down as chief executive.

The statement from WPP also revealed that for an interim period, Mark Read, then the global chief executive of Wunderman, and Andrew Scott, WPP’s corporate development director and chief operating officer, Europe, would act as joint chief operating officers while a successor was sought.

Sorrell has previously stated to me his belief that the pair should be handed the joint role on a permanent basis, but I suspect Read continues to covet the top job on his own, and that Scott would be happy to work alongside him (they have worked together for many years already). I don’t see it working the other way around. building a strong management team to support him will be crucial, and while WPP already has that in place, should he choose to make changes, he has shown how shrewd he can be at Wunderman, with a top class team in place there.

What matters most in this decision is that shareholders are happy, and under the pair, the peak price was 91.42USD on May 22, however during the summer months it has languished more in the low 80s and high 70s. It’s been a quiet summer for the ad industry in general though and no one’s results within ‘the Big Four’ would be classed as stellar. The network agency sectors has its fair share of problems, and it’s not without the realms of possibility that another chief executive could depart in the next two or three quarters should things not turn around.

One development that I know WPP was very disappointed by was the loss of acquisition target MediaMonks to Sorrell’s new holding company S4Capital, which he is chairman of. Sorrell placed a much higher bid for the Netherlands founded creative production business and won, however it was an expensive victory and WPP was never going to match the offer ([since publishing this piece a source close to the deal has told me that WPP's bid was closer to S4C's than previously understood} The shareholders would have revolted at the next AGM if so. Read and Scott are far more pragmatic to allow it, as is chairman Roberto Quarta who has faced a lot of criticism around the departure of Sir Martin and the lack of a non-compete in his contract.

Was it a great defeat for WPP really though? If WPP really wants a digital production business there are still some out there, and while the headlines looked as though Sorrell had struck a major blow in revenge against his former company, in the grand scheme of things - WPP has other fish to fry, even if MediaMonks is a very well performing business. It may still have plans for some of its own agency brands for example, with unsubstantiated rumors swirling around J Walter Thomson and Y&R, following the consolidation of Possible into Wunderman and the creation of Wavemaker via Maxus and MEC combining. With the retiring of the term ‘horizontality’ since April, it does indicate that more structural reorganization is likely - although Read has told me over the summer that it wasn’t an initial concern of his.

The recent haul of much of the Shell retail business into WPP brands like Wunderman and MediaCom, and the core brand business itself remaining with JWT was a sign of belief from a major conglomerate towards the service it was receiving from WPP. This will have done little harm if it is the sign of business wins to come to Read's chances of the big job, and it's been a solid run in that department after Mondelez added GroupM to its media roster with work going to both Wavemaker and Wunderman in the process.

And don’t forget, personality goes a long way. He’s a good guy I have to say; Thoughtful and approachable. His handling of the bullying claims by former employees of Sir Martin (which Sorrell has publicly refuted to me in Cannes) was fast and shrewd. He isn’t someone who wants a toxic culture to develop but he also defended his former boss in the process, saying they weren’t allegations he recognized. which was a touch of class I felt too. He didn’t need to say anything of the sort.

Read knows how to lead - and his management of Wunderman to create its premier digital agency brand globally shows his capabilities. Some say he hasn’t the experience of running a huge corporation - but he is popular internally and, with a strong team around him, that experience will come. He’s been doing it essentially for six months now too.

Then you have to look at who is rumored to be in the frame. No one has openly stated they wanted the job. I can see why IBM’s David Kenny was in the frame - IBM is a monster brand partner for WPP as they service each other’s business’s. But is Kenny a bigger name and would WPP really risk taking such a significant figure from such a major client? It could be a risk it doesn’t want to take. 

Are we likely to see the rumoured move of Keith Weed or another major brand-side name, step over to agencyland when things are as difficult as they are? I very much doubt it. 

And it’s also been disappointing that more female names haven’t been put in the frame. That would have not only been interesting to see, but it would have added real credibility to the network moving with the times. That’s not to say there haven’t been any considered - but it doesn’t appear to be the case externally.

Ultimately, it feels like appointing Read as the chief executive is the smartest route to take. I know it would be popular within the business among senior management, but also I believe he has earned the chance. This has to be the toughest time to lead an agency group though - so the best of luck to him if it does transpire in the coming months. There is a great deal of work to be done and the shareholders have a history of not holding back their anger when expectations are not met.

During the last shareholder meeting, the first to feature Read, afterwards Quarta fielded questions from the press and looked calm when asked when a successor would likely be named. He indicated that it wouldn't take place during Summer, and didn't appear to be in any rush despite seeing his approval rating fall among shareholders following his handling of the Sorrell departure, which he admitted to being disappointed by. That indicates his own view that the business is in safe hands. 

And if that is the case then Mark Read should be WPP’s next chief executive. He's the best possible candidate as I've outlined. 

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