WPP’s leadership issues go deeper than the holding company

WPP CEO Mark Read is copping quite a bit of flak in adland, although not, so far, in the City it seems, for WPP’s recent disappointing Q3 results . And his rather lame statement to Campaign seeming to blame it on former boss (and now auld enemy) Sir Martin Sorrell for not doing enough to integrate the hundreds of companies he bought.

Read, as digital director on the board, and COO Andrew Scott were there most of the time too so was this all Sorrell’s fault?

When any company stumbles, and WPP has now issued two profit warnings this year, questions are asked of the leadership. But the CEO and his allies aren’t the only leaders in a big, diverse holding company.

The various brands within the business also have leaders, or should have. One of WPP’s issues is that, as it keeps busily merging agencies (supposedly to make life easier for clients) it loses leaders. They either hang about, grumbling in the wings, or depart.

Agency leaders, media as much as creative, have always been noted for their seemingly blind faith in the brand. Whatever misfortunes occur, publicly they emerge bright-eyed and bushy-tailer to vow that things can only get better – indeed are getting better. Above all they’re loyal to their brand.

Under the exacting Sorrell regime WPP had some strong leaders – as well as some who were too strong (as at JWT) but that’s another story. Shelly Lazarus at Ogilvy steered Ogilvy through WPP’s high period although her replacements were less obviously distinguished. Grey emerged as the jewel in WPP’s creative crown (not the strongest field maybe) under veteran CEO Jim Meekin and creative supremo Tor Myhren in the US and David Patton, Chris Hirst and creative Nils Leonard in EMEA and the UK.

They all left for various reasons (Myrhen to Apple, Leonard to Uncommon) with Patton, fairly newly ensconced as global CEO of Y&R, finding himself merged into VML. Which now, under founder Jon Cook, stands above the lot of course. That’s a lot of talented leaders to lose.

Mediacom’s Stephen Alan (he’s now chair of Brainlabs) built the agency into the biggest in the world but now it finds itself merged with Essence into EssenceMediacom, with Essence seemingly on top. Essence’s Christian Juhl is now CEO of all of GroupM. That’s another big call.

What’s the answer? Read says all will be revealed at an investor day in January. Does he have that long?


  1. Stephen, you let Mark off way too easily. He’s been a board member for decades and was the head of strategy when Martin revved up the WPP engines. Mark structured many of the deals that resulted in Leaders Leaving. It was called an Earn Out. Tell them they’ll be rich, force them to accelerate their global scale above their earnings, then clobber them because those earnings fail. Promise everyone they only need to attach themselves to other WPP agencies and Ka-Boom – instant revenue. Then disincentivize both sides by failing to coordinate Revenue and Profit Sharing on those potential integrations… Absolute Bollocks. Since becoming the Digital Acquisition Chief, how many of Mark’s Leaders earned their full acquisition deal? I know of only two. (That’s because they were “maths guys” not agency guys.)

    Why could they kill off big name logo’s like Wunderman or Thompson? Because there is no one in OpCo leadership that knew and promoted, let alone cared or remembered, the institutional work ethic of those founding fathers. WPP have even done their best to make Ogilvy indifferent – not one of the current leadership board have been with the company more than a few years or months. GroupM is just a broker, not a dealer.

    My prediction is that Google will officially acquire WPP soon enough…

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