The differing leadership styles of Mark Read and Martin Sorrell

It is just over a year since WPP founder and CEO Martin Sorrell stepped down after 33 years at the company following an internal investigation into accusations of personal misconduct.

One year on from Martin Sorrell's exit, new WPP CEO Mark Read is radically evolving the group.
One year on from Martin Sorrell's exit, new WPP CEO Mark Read is radically evolving the group.

In September 2018, Mark Read took over the CEO mantle at beleaguered marketing services group WPP, which owns global PR firms including BCW, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Finsbury and Ogilvy.

WPP’s revenue dipped 0.4% on a like-for-like basis in 2018, to £12.83 billion. Pretax profit was down 28.1% to £1.46bn. The group’s PR and public affairs unit was a relatively strong performer, with like-for-like revenue up 2.6% for the full year.

Cohn & Wolfe (which this year has been trading under one P&L as BCW since January 1), Hill+Knowlton and specialist shops Finsbury, Hering Schuppener and Buchanan "performed particularly well" in 2018 according to WPP’s annual earnings report.

Read set expectations with the city that 2019 would be another tough year and he has promised "radical evolution" at the group, saying: "In the past, we have been too slow to adapt, become too complicated, and have underinvested in core parts of our business."

He started this process by merging a bunch of high-profile WPP agencies and dismantling the horizontality philosophy championed by his former boss Sorrell. For example, WPP Health & Wellness was broken up and the constituent parts returned to group agencies.

Ogilvy CommonHealth was put into WPP Health & Wellness by Martin Sorrell. Mark Read returned the units to the individual operating companies and it now operates as Ogilvy Health. It will soon just be Ogilvy, like everything else at the iconic WPP agency.

PRWeek’s Agency Business Report is the most comprehensive annual analysis of the PR sector and will be live on Tuesday. As a sneak preview of the report, below are some thoughts on the difference in style between Read and Sorrell courtesy of Ogilvy worldwide CEO John Seifert, somebody who knows both men well.

"Martin Sorrell’s genius was in building the company over time and expanding it globally, with acquisition at the heart of growth, and managing incremental value, sector and discipline expertise, building a portfolio of clients that bought more and more of the group’s services," Seifert told PRWeek in an interview for the Agency Business Report.

"Mark Read has a strategy for how the group should operate that isn’t just about sales outcomes," he added. "When that hit a wall, because there was less geographical opportunity, less stuff to buy, and clients became more challenged through their economic model or the way they wanted to work, it was hard for Martin Sorrell to know how to redesign the group to operate against these challenges, because he’d invented the holding company model with a certain set of design principles."

Looking forward, Seifert said: "Mark says we have a lot of capabilities clients want but too many of our companies are trying to do the same thing, or they’re not well enough positioned and it’s too complicated for clients to navigate the group, or we haven’t moved fast enough in some critical areas of technology or data and have to get emerging capabilities developed at the scale and sophistication clients want."

Overall, Seifert is predictably optimistic about the Sorrell-less future at WPP: "Mark Read is an operator and is focusing on how we put clients at the center, create differentiated client experiences, and align assets in a much more navigable way so there isn’t a tension between a holding company and a number of operating companies - and that’s a big shift."

Seifert explained the go-forward mantra at WPP as follows: "We’re a creative transformation company that is putting creativity, technology and ideas at the heart of how we can help you transform and puts things together in the right combination that meet your test for effect and efficiency."

Seifert’s final comments define the difference between the two CEOs in a nutshell: "It’s a big shift in how the company works. Mark Read’s background from his strategy days as a consultant and strategic acquisition of digital companies gives him a future view, and we’ll start to see how he anticipates the future and aligns the company’s capabilities more ambitiously.

 "The biggest challenge now is the growth gap, making us more competitively stronger, and serving clients differently, [whereas] Martin Sorrell’s approach was that ‘there’s no problem WPP can’t help you solve, so give us more business.’"

* I’m heading off for two weeks to get married. I will leave you in the capable hands of PRWeek’s news director Frank Washkuch and the rest of the team. Enjoy the Agency Business Report and I’ll see you all in May with a ring on my finger.

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