WPP’s Read deserves hammering over ageist comments – but they reveal a major flaw in the ad business

Mark Read (below) has shown a fairly sure touch in his time as CEO of WPP – not least in his public pronouncements.

But he let an angry and potentially highly damaging cat out of the bag when he observed last week that most of WPP’s staff were under 30, showing that the holding company’s staff “don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

There should have been red lights flashing all over the place. WPP has a terrible diversity record (although Read is adamant he’s doing something about it) including the number of older people still employed.

A couple of years ago JWT London (in one of the global agency’s many examples of self-harm) found itself on the steps of court as five newly-redundant staff claimed they’d been fired because they were “white, male and straight.”

This followed a bizarre rant from creative director Jo Wallace that the agency’s London HQ was a “Knightsbridge boy’s club” with the implication that such people should be banished. As many of them seem to be, for whatever reason.

Read has apologised fulsomely but maybe better advice now would be to stop digging. There’s little doubt that Covid-19 has seen a further exodus of older, white and, often, highly-paid males from agencies worldwide, among all the other casualties.

There is a money issue here of course – isn’t there always. Anyone who had the good fortune to work in a high profile agency twenty or thirty years ago is likely to have been on very good money. People still expect pay rises every year, whatever their start point. Those that have survived until now – unless they’re the bosses, like 50-something Read – are tempting targets for the execution squads in HR.

Agencies also bill clients on the basis of hours worked – supposedly differentiating senior and junior people. But how many cheaper junior people are being billed at senior rates? Some clients might like to look into this.

The other aspect to this is the loss of skills and experience. It’s no wonder that agencies no longer sit at the top client table alongside the consultants and other rainmakers.

Read now has some formidable opposition on his tail, Cindy Gallop for one.

It’s a right old mess but one that shows a deep structural flaw in the ad business.

Update

A number of people have told me that “hammered” is a touch strong on this – think it’s fair comment although criticised could have been an alternative. But the hammering Mark Read is taking on Twitter (not from Cindy) is completely out of order – what is it about this ‘platform’ that brings out the worst in people?

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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.

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