WPP (Re)Discovers Creativity

A shorter version of this post appeared on Mediatel’s Newsline on 11th December

One of the hoariest clichés you’ll ever hear about the ad business is that the assets go up and down every day in the lift. Even today when the lift is equipped with the latest AI algorithms it’s still the people that make it go.

Amidst a great fanfare Mark Read of WPP revealed the Group’s new strategic direction to a waiting world this week.

WPP is turning itself into a creative transformation business. I’m not too sure what it was before, but ‘creativity’ is now at the heart of everything it does. Presumably it wasn’t before. But anyway, it is now.

Oh, and the word ‘digital’ is banned (hurrah!).

The focus on creative endeavours sounds like a sensible idea – certainly it’s hard to argue with. On the basis that one way to judge the uniqueness of a positioning is to assess how many competitors do the opposite, it’s fair to say that WPP aren’t unique. There’s little future for an unimaginative business interested in staying exactly where it is.

The lift can be smart and shiny, but it’s the people who make it work.

The new strategic focus is built around four pillars: communications, experience, commerce and technology. Again, all very sensible and good to see a recognition of the importance of creating and building upon brand experiences.

Plus there’s little question that many need help with e-commerce and with all aspects of technology.

Mark Read had this to say: “What we hear from clients is very consistent: they want our creativity and they want us to help them transform their business in a world reshaped by technology. This is at the heart of what we do.

“We are fundamentally repositioning WPP as a creative transformation company with a simpler offer that allows us to meet the present and future needs of clients.”

Again – all good stuff but is WPP best placed even amongst the holding companies to deliver to this promise? After all, judged purely on the single metric of creativity, and the single lens of advertising there aren’t many who would place JWT (as was) or Y&R (as was) ahead of Adam and Eve DDB, or Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

There’s work to be done.

The question it seems to me is not will WPP successfully mutate but rather what is the point of a holding company these days?

Clients want flexible, nimble organisations able to work with others to deliver brilliant transformative solutions for their businesses. Is this more or less likely to happen if the organisations selected are owned by a common parent?

Or is it more likely in an organisation free from pressures and processes from above?

Simplicity in delivery to the client, regardless of what’s happening behind the scenes is what counts. There’s a lot to be said for the swan model – serene on the surface, paddling like hell underneath. Read is right to call for a simpler offer.

Will the people charged with delivering creative transformations be allowed the freedom to spread their wings? Or will they still feel the need to (in the words of the dear departed leader) ‘fight nicely’?

It’s the people who make the lift go up and down. Does WPP have enough of the right people; and will the centre give them their freedom? Maybe. Even with the 3,500 announced job losses there’s certainly plenty of talent around.

But if I was a betting man I would have a flutter on the independents.

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