Mark Read: ‘This is medieval, isn’t it? It’s like the plague.’

WPP CEO Mark Read gave some insight into what it’s like running WPP at a time of crisis while speaking at a digital “ThinkIn” session with James Harding, the former BBC news chief (and Times editor) who now runs “slow news” platform, Tortoise.

Speaking from his home office, Read said: “This is like the world’s biggest experiment. It’s like ‘Through the Keyhole.’ It’s the biggest disruption in the way we work, live and communicate. The world will come out of this changed.”

Read talks about the “tsunami of changes” inflicted on WPP by coronavirus, moving from China to Italy and now the rest of the world.

He admits that he worries about how to maintain tempo in the business if the coronavirus lockdown goes on for more than a few months. “This is both a health crisis and a financial crisis,” Read says. “We have to protect not only people’s lives but their jobs… This is medieval isn’t it? It’s like the plague. You can see the fear. We haven’t seen anything like this for seven or eight centuries.”

Read adds: “It brings home why people say don’t leverage your business. It is going to change how people think about risk.” The WPP CEO had started to reduce the enormous debt load he inherited from predecessor Martin Sorrell — he sold a majority stake in Kantar to Bain Capital for $4 billion last year — but there’s still a big debt to service.

Keeping WPP on track was a challenge even before a global pandemic hit, and Read says that now he’s “drinking from a firehose of things to do and decisions to make” but is focused on “people first, customers second and at the same time.”

Read reveals that WPP has already been affected long term. He’s realised he doesn’t have to fly to Italy to address all his employees there, and the crisis has moved the dial on working from home.

“A lot of people weren’t allowed to work from home because their older bosses didn’t trust them to,” Read says. “Now those older bosses are learning that you can be very effective when you work from home.”

As of this week, 93% of WPP’s 110,000 employees are working from home – although that’s already dropped back to 55% in China.

Asked to look beyond the current crisis, Read says: “Consumers will be in different groups. Some will want to have a massive celebration. For others, their lives will be impacted and they will have lost loves ones, lost their jobs. They’ll feel very differently about many things.”

He’s not all heart, though. Read concludes: “Companies will try to do the right thing, but we shouldn’t be naïve; profits are not all of a sudden going to be thrown out the window. Let’s not forget that companies do play a valuable role in society by providing people with jobs and income.”

Watch the full Tortoise ThinkIn here.

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