Read and Scott at WPP are like football managers awaiting the board’s end of season verdict

The FT reckons Oath CEO Tim Armstrong is top of headhunter Russell Reynolds’ list of candidates to succeed Sir Martin Sorrell as CEO of WPP, along with Unilever CMO Keith Weed.

There may not be an outsider of course as interim COOs Mark Read and Andrew Scott (below) have so far done a good job; stemming the share price fall with some well-judged comments distancing themselves from SMS and letting it be known that some bits of the empire are up for grabs: research operation Kantar being the biggest but WPP’s gaggle of minority investments in things as diverse as Comscore, Vice and agency group Chime are also supposedly on the block.

WPP is currently worth about £16bn but has debts of £5bn, uncomfortably high with interest rates edging their way up. Kantar may be worth up to £4bn and a sale would help the board sleep more easily.

Armstrong is an interesting one. So far there’s no evidence that he’s even interested (allegedly his sights are set on Oath owner Verizon). Oath is Verizon’s rather oddly named competitor to Google, combining AOL with Yahoo. Prior to AOL Armstrong was a Googler, a man who knows his way around an algorithm.

If he is interested in the WPP post it would be a significant vote for media agencies, where WPP makes most of its money. Google, Facebook, Amazon and, maybe, Oath, are the biggest threat to media agencies because they have the capability to cut them out of the mix entirely; doing deals directly with advertisers. Armstrong, presumably, wouldn’t touch WPP with a bargepole if this is the way he sees the market going.

Weed is another interesting alternative, he clearly knows the marketing market and has been one of the main players, along with P&G’s Marc Pritchard, in squeezing agency fees and therefore margins. If he sees this trend continuing he, too, might think more than twice about playing King Canute as the tide comes in.

It would be difficult for him to switch sides anyway when the sides are so polarised.

May is the end of the football season of course, a time when managers wonder if they’ll be kept on and given all that TV money to spend. This is the uncomfortable position faced by Read and Scott as WPP, perhaps vainly, searches for its own version of Manchester City’s Sep Guardiola.

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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.

One comment

  1. I bought WPP shares at 143p, so I’m grateful to Sorrell But I’m also worried for the rump of those I still hold if WPP appoints a man from Unilever to lead them : I know nothing of Weed, but I do know that no client marketing man has ever made a success of running a major agency, let alone a communications group. A Unilever man might do a good job at Tesco, but winning and holding clients at an agency requires a different animal, and you could argue that Unilever has not been too brilliant a marketing company anyway

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