Mark Read’s Folly

Things always seem to kick off at WPP when I’m away. In April 2018 (when the Cog Blog was on a break..) Sir Martin Sorrell left his creation. This time it’s some poorly thought-through remarks from Mark Read, Sorrell’s successor that have fired up a number of advertising luminaries over the age of 30.

Here’s what Read said to an analyst as reported in ‘Campaign’: “If you were to sit through a client presentation or if you were to sit through meetings we have, it’s not Mad Men, we’re not sitting there thinking about 30-second TV ads … We have a very broad range of skills and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

‘Campaign’ headlined Gideon Spanier’s story: Mark Read on reopening offices, job cuts, Accenture and his £48 expenses.

The fuss has been rather less about the extravagance of the £48 and rather more about what many see as an ageist remark.

To be fair, Read has (sort-of) apologised (and before someone has a go at me the grammar and punctuation are all his): “All ages are we valued at WPP and the last thing I would want to suggest is otherwise and of course experience is valued. I was asked by an analyst if we had too many people who just did TV ads at WPP and this was my response. I guess I said it to try to make the point that this wasn’t what our people did. I certainly don’t want suggest that age is any way a good thing on its own and I’m sorry that is how it reads.”

First, it’s worth getting even the smallest facts right. The Mad Men era was not the 1980’s. The final series ended with Don Draper dreaming up the famous Coke ‘Hilltop’ ad which aired in 1971.

Next, as Cog Blog aficionado Alan Brydon pointed out on Twitter: “I seem to recall that the 80s were full of stunningly successful ad campaigns, with brilliant creative and media work driving huge sales for clients.”

Advertising today is not exactly brimming over with ‘stunningly successful’ campaigns. Rather, as all kinds of surveys have shown trust in advertising is close to an all time low. Creative standards are by general consent abysmal.

You can argue that this is due to all sorts of factors, but to suggest that we are living through some sort of golden age brought about by the diversified skills of a holding company is as absurd as suggesting that we can learn nothing from the past.

If I was a client looking at the output from my agencies; advertising, media, research, data analytics, PR, social media, influence marketers, I think I may find myself pining for the time when commercial messages of all shapes and sizes just seemed to work better.

Then there’s the age issue. I was genuinely amazed to discover that according to its CEO, WPP’s average age across the business is under 30 (apparently it isn’t, by the way). Admittedly they have sold Kantar – where much experience and wisdom resides – but even so.

Ageism is nothing new, as I know from personal experience. Claire Beale (whom I had never met) wrote a spiteful piece in ‘Campaign’ (the industry’s mouthpiece, remember) when I took over Universal McCann EMEA saying that surely they could have found someone younger for the role. Clients disagreed.

As I write, Gideon Spanier has addressed the ageist point.

It is weird (as Bob Hoffman says) that we don’t seem surprised when people over a certain age win the Nobel prize. Or Emmys. Or Oscars. But it is clearly beyond the wit of old gits to write an online ad or plan a multi-media campaign.

There’s also a certain irony that the financial driving force of WPP, GroupM was started and built by the likes of Irwin Gotlieb, Rob Norman, Nick Theakstone, Steve Allen and the rest. No disrespect to them but even back then they weren’t kids.

Shouldn’t the Board and management team at WPP at least reflect this commitment to the young? I haven’t checked, is the WPP Board’s average age younger than that of the average FTSE 100 Board?

Cindy Gallop, Dave Trott, Bob Hoffman and many others have done a great job demolishing the age argument but it is worth making the additional point that spending time on great TV ads might be just what clients need.

Not the only thing (that was a mistake of the past) but big, fame-generating ideas which inevitably start life on TV before taking flight across all communication channels (and not just ad channels), combined with real results tracked and measured by great data people wouldn’t be such a terrible idea.


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