Does Bessie Lee’s promotion to CEO WPP China signal important changes at the marcoms giant?

Bessie Lee sounds like a blues singer but she’s not, she’s head of WPP’s mighty media organisation GroupM in China.

And now Lee (pictured), who began her career with WPP 23 years ago in Taiwan, has been promoted – to CEO of WPP China.

Now this is interesting because, as far as we know, she’s the first WPP CEO anywhere, apart from in Farm Street, Mayfair, where Sir Martin Sorrell, boss of the whole shebang, resides.

So does this make Lee the coming person in WPP? China, after all, is rather crucial to the group’s fortunes, now and far into the future. Might this even mean that one day WPP will relocate, not from London to New York as many people have long expected but to Shanghai or Beijing?

We’re getting rather ahead of ourselves, of course. SMS has so far shown no sign of retiring from the company he founded over a quarter of a century ago, although some shareholders have shown tentative signs of wishing to retire him if he keeps demanding even more money.

But, leaving succession aside for a moment, this may be the first step in simplifying WPP’s labyrinthine structure, which has agencies, networks and regional network holding companies all over the place. Chief execs of WPP in (the rest of) Asia, the US, the UK and Europe may not be far behind.

Lee, who reports to WPP’s chief strategy officer Scott Spirit, will presumably be overall head of WPP’s creative agencies and PR companies in China, as well as its media agencies. Will she be in ultimate charge of its market research operations, currently grouped in Kantar under CEO Eric Salama?

Sir Martin Sorrell says: “Bessie has done a fantastic job in building GroupM China into not only the leading media agency group in China, but one of GroupM’s strongest operations globally.” As you do.

As for the ultimate successor to 67-year old Sorrell, there’ll have to be some white smoke on this sometime in the next couple of years. Digital boss Mark Read is on the main board, Kantar chief Salama used to be. It’s long been thought that an internal successor to Sorrell was more likely to come from the media side of WPP than one of its agencies.

There are outside candidates too, of course, and half-in, half-out ones like Johnny Hornby of CHI, my colleague Paul Simons’ (partly tongue-in-cheek) tip for the top. WPP owns 49 per cent of CHI but has backed the agency in the US and now in Asia. Hornby is now calling the shots at new 50/50 venture Bates CHI Asia, a sizeable operation with 14 offices across the region.

Well we’ll see. But it isn’t too fanciful to view Bessie Lee’s promotion and her new job as the first sign of a significant restructuring at WPP.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.