Why WPP wants to be the LVMH of post-COVID-19 advertising

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For Quick Firm’s Form of Tomorrow sequence, we’re asking enterprise leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 period is remodeling their industries. Right here’s what’s been misplaced—and what might be gained—in the new world order.

Since taking the chief govt chair at WPP in 2018, Mark Learn has overseen a interval of substantial and existential change inside the world’s largest advertising firm. He merged legacy, decades-old advert company manufacturers with the firm’s newer digital advertising companies. J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman mixed to create Wunderman Thompson, whereas Y&R and VML created VMLY&R. Final yr he mixed Gray and AKQA right into a single firm, referred to as AKQA Group.

Mark Learn [Photo: WPP]

The holding firm mannequin has been beneath strain from a quantity of angles, from the encroachment of consultancies resembling Accenture and Deloitte to a brand new wave of impartial inventive outlets, who’re all trying to snag a bit of WPP’s historically large market share.

Learn spoke to Quick Firm about the present challenges for WPP and the manufacturers it represents, how shopper wants and calls for have modified, and the way the holding firm is aiming to adapt for the future.


Quick Firm: How has the previous yr affected your organization?

Mark Learn: In some ways, I don’t assume something’s stayed the identical in what we do, and by the time we get again to regular, I like to say, we’ll have forgotten what regular is. When instances are robust, they usually have been for many individuals and corporations, that’s if you innovate most. When issues are good, the inclination is usually to keep it up as earlier than. [The year] examined us in some ways as a corporation. So many features of our enterprise [changed]: the varieties of work we do for purchasers, the approach we work, the place we try this work—in a way more profound approach than simply whether or not we’re in an workplace or working from residence—how we use know-how. . . . I believe it’s accelerated traits that have been already occurring.

Clearly, it massively accelerated the adoption of digital media, which grew 5% final yr, possibly 15%-plus this yr, so it comes out of the pandemic 20% greater. Whereas conventional TV declined by 10%. So the hole between digital and conventional has widened. Shoppers are by no means going to return to conventional media as earlier than, identical to the 2008-2009 downturn actually hit newspapers and print media very exhausting, from which it by no means actually recovered. I believe this [past year] can have that affect on conventional media as properly.

The identical is true of e-commerce. Folks speak about a 5-year acceleration of e-commerce, and even a 10-year acceleration in some classes. We’re not going to go proper again to shopping for issues the very same approach as we used to. We’ve seen retailers like Asos and Boohoo purchase well-known offline manufacturers like Topshop and Debanhams, and shutting all their excessive avenue [storefronts]. Strengthening of these new channels weakens the conventional channels, which additional reinforces the change.

What have you ever noticed over the previous yr in phrases of how manufacturers and corporations wade into social and political points?

It takes a time like this to reassess the function that firms play. Take into consideration the challenges and points which have confronted enterprise leaders over the previous yr. They’re a lot broader than earlier than. To deal with racial fairness, not simply in the United States however in different components of the world. To consider the psychological well being of their folks.

CEOs acknowledge that they want to contemplate [these things], they usually can’t keep away from [them]. They could not need to be concerned in politics, however they’ll’t keep away from political points. What’s your level of view on social media? What’s your level of view on racial fairness? It’s now not okay to not have some extent of view. We did some analysis [and found that] 82% of U.S. shoppers would decide an organization primarily based on the way it behaved throughout the pandemic. It could sound apparent, however I believe it’s essential.


How have your purchasers’ wants or calls for modified most importantly?

Work that may usually take 16 weeks took 16 days. We did a bit of work for Woman Up, the Kamala Harris movie, that was produced in eight hours. We’ve labored in a extra agile and direct approach.

We’ve received purchasers the place the CMO and chief inventive officer focus on scripts over the breakfast desk. Earlier than, that may’ve been a giant assembly, with account folks, possibly involving a airplane flight. This was a lot faster.

In phrases of new enterprise, we actually labored on how to pitch over Zoom. We created a studio so we might run digital pitches from one place. 5 years in the past, we’d fly 30 folks to a pitch, all stuffed right into a film studio in L.A. Right now, we do it remotely. It’s not excellent, and we’ll in all probability want to get some bodily conferences again. However lots of [these] pitches gained us lots of new enterprise final yr.

Proper now, in pitches, folks speak about their function in the group relatively than deal with what firm model they arrive from. I believe that it has introduced us nearer collectively. My analogy for WPP would be LVMH, which is a superb firm with nice manufacturers inside of it. While you hear they purchase Tiffany, you don’t instantly assume they’re going to ship the accountants in and destroy it.

For WPP, it’s about we are able to be a inventive firm, not only a holding firm. I have a look at an organization like Disney, the place you could have Pixar, Marvel, Disney manufacturers, that each one come collectively once they want to. So we’ve manufacturers inside WPP, from Ogilvy to AKQA to Gray, and we’ve fewer than we used to have as a result of we received a bit too difficult. However we’re encouraging folks to collaborate, many of us share workplaces, and we’ve coordinated lots of the response to COVID-19. And I believe it’s in the end introduced the firm nearer collectively.

You’ve been working for some time to reshape the firm for the future. How has the holding firm mannequin modified most in the final 5 years, and what have been your handiest strikes to this point at WPP?

We’ve been attempting to simplify the firm, making it simpler for our purchasers to navigate, taking out the complexity that received in the approach of bringing the purchasers the greatest concept. One of the best instance of that was bringing collectively our so-called creatives with so-called digital companies. The very fact is that they did many of the identical issues, simply coming from a distinct background, and sometimes serving the identical purchasers. Our group was getting in the approach of giving purchasers concepts that would attain throughout all the channels.

I believe the debate about holding firms is extra about the individuals who begin that debate than the holding firms themselves. These are usually startups trying to compete with holding firms. There’s little question that holding firms wanted to evolve. However we’re a really completely different firm than what we have been even two or three years in the past. And we’ll proceed to evolve.

What do you see as the advertising trade’s largest hurdle proper now?

I believe it’s going to be a very robust yr. You’re going to see a very robust bounce-back in shopper spending.


The problem for our purchasers is to take benefit of that, but additionally make certain they proceed to change. The lesson of the final yr is that transformation and disruption usually are not going away. There was a time again in the autumn when the vaccine began rolling out the place I believed, I hope we’ve made all the robust choices now, as a result of it’s going to be exhausting to make these robust choices when everybody thinks all the things goes again to regular. That’s half of the problem.

Loads of firms have realized that they have been much more agile than they thought they have been. That they’ll do issues in numerous methods. So I’m optimistic about the future.

Extra from Quick Firm’s Form of Tomorrow sequence:

  • NASA’s tradition chief reveals how COVID-19 altered the company
  • Insiders at Common Mills and elsewhere on how COVID-19 modified manufacturing and provide chains round the world
  • Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin on how COVID-19 is altering basketball
  • Is advertising actually useless? Studies might be exaggerated. Right here’s how the leaders of Droga5, TWBA, Wieden+Kennedy, and others are inching ahead
  • 5 retail specialists—from Nike, Athleta, and others—on how shops and types can survive the COVID-19 period
  • Consultants predict what it’ll take to discover a job in a post-COVID-19 world
  • Insiders at Burning Man, Broadway, Meow Wolf, and others describe how the live-events trade will emerge onto a brand new stage
  • High executives at the NBA, Main League Soccer, and extra on how we’ll expertise reside sports activities after COVID-19
  • How COVID-19 has modified the approach we eat, in accordance to leaders at Common Mills, Land O’Lakes, and others
  • How the leaders of Barry’s, Orangetheory, and Peloton are bringing health courses into folks’s properties and rethinking the studio expertise completely
  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shares classes from the bubble
  • The MLB’s chief technique officer explains how COVID-19 continues to be altering the fan expertise