A big week in adland: Brexit (inevitably), Read’s vision for WPP and MAA picks its Agencies of the Year

It’s arguably the biggest week of the year for the ad business (and many others of course) with a crucial Parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan due tomorrow (Tuesday) although it’s this column’s view that the Government may yet find a way of kicking the issue into touch by somehow delaying the vote until the hapless Mrs May pays yet another visit to Brussels for an EU summit at the weekend.

A no-deal Brexit would have big reverberations in adland, with many clients relocating to continental Europe (including Ireland) and pressure on the UK’s biggest ad holding company WPP to take itself elsewhere too, most likely the US. French and German agencies would expect to cash in.

WPP, of course, will be in the news again, also on Tuesday, as CEO Mark Read unveils his strategy for the embattled group which has seen its market value plummet from around £20bn at its peak a couple of years ago to £11bn today.

Read (below), who succeeded founder Sir Martin Sorrell at the head of the group in controversial circumstances earlier this year, has an impossible job in many ways. He needs to restore WPP’s self confidence (meaning inspire its people) while taking the kind of drastic action that will persuade shareholders the worst is over. In essence this means saving money and that means fewer people working in fewer WPP companies. Hardly an inspiring prospect if you work at WPP although there are many WPP executives with share options now well under water who wouldn’t mind the shares going up again.

Sorrell himself, now running S4 Capital, the proud owner of MediaMonks and digital media outfit MightyHive, gave a rather ill-judged interview to the Mail on Sunday at the weekend which offered an opportunity to rehearse various lurid accounts of his departure and his approach to employees (which he denies). He also said that WPP had become too UK-centric – “Fortress Britain” – which the company denies.

One of his old allies Johnny Hornby of The&Partnership – 49 per cent owned by WPP – leapt to Read and WPP’s defence saying Sorrell should stop “talking down” his old creation (Sorrell has said, inter alia, that WPP is a slow-motion car crash) and that Sorrell’s comments are “disrespectful to them and make him look small.”

It’s also emerged that WPP is looking to sell The Farm, its post-production business, for around £50m. This is a drop in the ocean as WPP’s debts amount to over £4bn but it all helps – especially as The Times reckons Read will write off £350m to pay for the redundancy programme.

To cap adland’s big week we’ll be choosing the MAA Agency of the Year on Thursday, the UK’s premier (free) agency competition. 2018 hasn’t exactly been comfortable for creative agencies with big names including JWT, Y&R (both owned by WPP) and WCRS (owned by Engine) disappearing. But there are high points too.

We’ll also be looking at media agencies (tricky, how do choose between a good local performer with no international business and a big holding company global operation), Network of the Year, US Agency of the Year and International Agency of the Year.

Last year’s winners were UK Agency of the Year Wieden+Kennedy, Network of the Year The&Partnership, US Agency of the Year Droga5 and International Agency of the Year Buzzman in Paris. We also chose MDC Partners as our Holding Company of the Year. We’ll pass on that one this time round.

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About Stephen Foster

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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.