WPP CEO Mark Read on returning to the office

Guidelines have been set but are meant to be flexible, he told PRWeek.

WPP CEO Mark Read
WPP CEO Mark Read

WPP CEO Mark Read issued a memo this week laying out the plans for bringing the holding company’s employees back into the offices around the world. He sat down with PRWeek to elaborate on his plan and how the pandemic has affected the company’s fortunes. 

In the recent company-wide memo about reopening WPP offices you said some people are already returning. How many people have returned and where is the company right now? 

If I look at our business around the world, China is to some extent back to normal in many ways. People are starting to come back quite quickly after the Chinese New Year. We're running at about 80% capacity. And a market like Hong Kong is in a similar situation. And that’s sort of one end of the spectrum.

I think there are parts of Europe, the markets like Germany or Denmark or Austria where offices are starting to open. And other markets like Italy, they’re sort of working on it.  

In many ways, we're trying to be cautious but also recognize there’s a very wide spectrum of views about going back to the office. There are a number of people who are very keen to come back. There's a number of people who I think are looking forward to coming back but probably not quite ready to do it yet.

And there are a number of people -- for a variety of reasons including health situations, or who have kids -- for whom it’s not easy to come back. So I think we're trying to balance all of those requirements and really just be as flexible as we can.

You've got to keep in mind the different sites in different states are in different places in terms of the pandemic. And we want to, as much as possible, leave it to what our people want to do. 

Also in the memo you said you didn't expect significant numbers of people to return soon to offices in London and New York. Do you have a schedule for those locations?

I think relatively soon we’ll start to open those offices. But that doesn't mean that a large number of people will come back. It means that the offices will be available to people who want to come back. 

And in a number of them we’re setting up booking systems so people can book that they want to come back. Obviously we have to control it carefully and limit the number of people in the office. 

And I think that situation will persist for some time. What I was really trying to do was manage people’s expectations, particularly in London and New York where we have a large number of people and it may take longer.

We're not expecting large numbers to come back before September October. And, as I say in the note, depending on the situation it may take longer. 

And there are two reasons. One is obviously the density of the offices. The second is obviously in those markets, a lot of times people commute to work. And we are as concerned about how people get into the office as we are about what they do in the office.

Even if we can provide a very safe working environment, it's harder for a number of people to commute in, while in many other cities it's feasible for people to drive in or share rides or come in a different way. 

So, I think if you look at the hotspots of the virus, it's to some extent in the big cities; Milan, Madrid, London, New York. And in those cities I think we just want to be extra careful. 

In many locations, WPP operates a central campus with several agencies. What kind of discretion do individual agencies have in returning to work? 

One of the reasons to send out the memo was to create a set of guidelines that each agency or campus will follow. And for agencies that are in a campus, you'd expect them to come back in a consistent fashion because we need to do that to manage the capacity of that office.  

Where agencies are not on the campus they would manage that return to work themselves but pretty much within the guidelines.

We have to understand that in different businesses and different roles there are a number of advantages to coming back. A number of people work in production with heavy technical equipment. It's hard for them to do their job at home. I'm very conscious of people involved in the business processes where being together in an office may make life a lot easier. 

So the key is around necessitating a minimum set of standards and being flexible in terms of understanding people's situations and the jobs that they're performing and trying to cater to a wide range of views of what people want to do. 

I think there are a number of senior executives inside WPP and outside WPP who may be quite happy working from home for a long period of time. But a number of our staff, particularly people that are at the start of their careers, live in smaller flats on their own. And so coming back into the office might be very good for them. 

We have to be careful not to judge everyone by what we want to do, but really be responsive to what our people want to do.

Has the fact that some things can’t be done remotely -- like production work or PR activations and events -- affected the bottom line? 

I think that you saw in our Q1 results that our PR businesses were less impacted by the pandemic. And that illustrates the sort of greater resilience of those businesses and that there’s a need for clients to communicate clearly to their stakeholders, particularly employees, at the current time. 

I expect that to continue over this period as well. I think there will be continued requirements from clients to communicate clearly to everyone what they're doing and what steps they're taking to protect their customers and to look after their employees and to provide the services people need at the moment. 

Hill+Knowlton Strategies recently confirmed it had reduced staff because of the pandemic. Can we expect similar staff reductions at BCW, Ogilvy, Finsbury and other WPP PR shops? To what degree are those decisions made by the agencies versus WPP? 

I'm not going to comment on decisions that have been made or may be made in any of our specific companies.

We have tried to protect as many jobs as possible though the series of cost actions that we've taken, particularly salary sacrifices. So 3,000 senior people across WPP, and they are primarily those eligible for bonuses, have taken pay cuts for Q2.

And then there are other measures like reduced working weeks. We're in the fortunate position that there is continued demand for our services. And there will be a long-term impact from this on the demand for our services. So we're trying to balance the right mix of temporary cost reductions, which are quite significant, with making more permanent job cuts only really when that’s necessary as the last resort.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

The current crisis highlights the importance of PR to me and the role it can play inside WPP. We've seen a number of cases where we're seeing a much more integrated approach between our PR agencies and our other businesses. And so in many ways this is bringing WPP together in quite an interesting way. I think that will be a really positive development for all of us in the future.

It's a difficult situation and I hesitate to use the word “opportunities,” but I think that the way in which we're working and the speed at which we're working are things I don't want us to lose. You have to make sure that we are learning as we go and that we continue to operate in that way when we're through this.

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