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September 16, 2019

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Toughing out declining growth in ad sales

Laurent Ezekiel became chief officer for marketing and growth at UK advertising and public relations company WPP in May.

Born to a French mother and Indian father in London, he studied geography and sustainable development, and started as a graduate trainee at Saatchi & Saatchi. He worked at rivals Digitas and Publicis before joining WPP last year.

WPP’s investment arm GroupM forecasts China’s spending on media this year will see growth slump to 5.2 percent, the lowest level in almost a decade. In the second quarter WPP’s like-for-like net sales fell a better-than-expected 1.4 percent and it also sold 60 percent stake market research group Kantar to Bain Capital in July.

Shanghai Daily sat down for an exclusive interview with Ezekiel last month to discuss his new role at the world’s largest advertising holding company and the changes the industry is undergoing.

Q: What’s the goal of WPP’s transformation efforts and what are the challenges?

A: Last year, we announced a three-year plan to reposition WPP as a creative transformation company.

Creativity is at the heart of the company, and it’s the reason why our clients at different points in their own transformation processes come to us for help. We also want to move from a holding group to a company that is more collaborative and united.

One of the big challenges with simplifying these agencies is the volume of work ahead, but we have very clear and simple vision.

Recent examples include the merger between Wunderman and JWT, and between VML and Y&R.

WPP is combining its health specialist agencies, Sudler & Hennessey, Ogilvy CommonHealth, and GHG with three respective full-service agencies.

Our goal is making it easier for our clients to access either one of our agencies and to be more open in collaborating at to be more open with our clients.

So far, we’ve seen growth in large clients such as big tech and luxury brands, and the tech-related areas of our offering, such as e-commerce and consumer experiences, are also doing well.

In this way we would be able to offer integrated service, which is delivered by either one of our capable agencies or partners.

We also want a big part of our work to focus on our communities and sustainability. One of the initiatives announced during the Cannes Festival is that we will phase out single-use plastic in our 3,000-plus offices globally.

Q: What does this new role mean for you and what’s the benefit for clients?

A: An important part of my role is talking about WPP to clients, to industry people and to the market overall. We have been actively involved in industry events or conferences to present WPP as a leading company. For example, industry events like the Cannes Lions Festival are very important, and we also attend regional events or sometimes global events.

We have also launched the Institute for Real Growth, a partnership co-founded by partners like Linkedin, Facebook, Google, to provide clients with a series of workshops by industry experts at WPP and external partners so that they get a holistic view of growth strategies and the needs of organizational business growth.

We use this as an opportunity for clients to become acquainted with the capability of expertise.

Q: What’s your specific plan in China?

A: We continue to support brands in their consumer e-commerce businesses with innovative and creative offerings. We will also work with local clients in business that extends beyond China, such as domestic brands going overseas to grow their global presence.

One of the most important features here is a much faster speed of the overall ad and marketing industry. Here the culture definitely values the trial fast mindset, and we need to understand that a little bit better from the outside in perspective.

A second feature is the richness of content, the different media formats and the scale media vendors can offer to help fuel creativity.

The third feature is a richness of data around commerce and transactions, whose power is on a whole new level, given the speed and the level of integration of digital applications.

Q: How do you think your business approaches will change an overall ad market where growth is slowing down? What about the role of smaller boutique agencies?

A: A simpler structure within the company is important, and we also want to leverage data and technology.

We hope to underpin creativity with better data, better technology. We will also keep a heading will we be able to support them. As business models evolve, we need to evolve as well.

We want to bring attention to clients in four particular areas: communications, customer experience, commerce and transaction-related abilities, and technology.

There will also be a cultural shift to foster a habit where data is reviewed regularly.

For example, a recent campaign for MAC Cosmetics’ offline store in Shanghai was made by Wunderman Thompson. It was based on studies on Generation Z’s preferences for beauty products. The MAC store on Huaihai Road combined product discovery, social engagement and purchase.

I’m a big optimist on the industry. Radical changes have taken place in the past 12 months, such as potential new entrants, like consultancies Accenture and Capgemini. At the same time, tech giants Microsoft and Amazon are moving into online advertising. But we’re still confident that we stand out among competitors.

Boutique agencies still have a role in the market, and I think we have to be open to working with different partners as well as bringing in external partners.


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