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Meet the 25 power players who are trying to turn around WPP, the world’s biggest ad holding company

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  • WPP, the largest ad holding company, has struggled to keep up as clients move more money toward digital platforms and consulting firms aggressively pitch their ability to transform businesses.
  • CEO Mark Read, who took over from Martin Sorrell in 2018, has been making dramatic changes like agency mergers and C-suite hires.
  • These are the 25 key people helping carry out his vision.
  • This list is based on conversations with current and former WPP executives and insiders as well as hirings, earnings, and new business announcements from the past 18 months.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

Mark Read, who took over WPP in 2018, has one of the most visible faces and toughest jobs in advertising.

The biggest agency holding company by annual billings, WPP includes some of advertising’s most historical agencies like Ogilvy; PR giant Burson Cohn Wolfe; and GroupM, the world’s largest ad-buying network. Ford, IBM, and Mondelez are among its top clients.

But WPP, like other traditional advertising companies, has faced harsh headwinds in recent years as marketers move their money to digital platforms dominated by Google, Facebook, and, increasingly, Amazon. WPP’s stock dropped by nearly 15% after it reported greater-than-expected losses in the last quarter of 2019 and predicted flat growth for 2020.

WPP’s case was exacerbated by the abrupt early 2018 departure of founder and longtime CEO Martin Sorrell amid accusations that he misused company funds. Sorrell has continually denied those accusations.

His successor Read has a radical plan to turn WPP around over the next three years by merging agencies, selling major assets such as research firm Kantar, closing offices, and cutting 3,500 jobs while promoting key executives and hiring 1,000 new staffers by 2021.

These are some of the most powerful people helping drive Read’s strategy, listed in alphabetical order. The list is based on conversations with current and former executives, all of whom are known to Business Insider but spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly, as well as WPP staffing, earnings, and new business news from the past 18 months.

The list includes all 15 people that Read picked to be on an executive committee of top people at the company to help inform his strategy. Read formed the committee in 2019, but its membership has not been made public.

A WPP spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Ajaz Ahmed, global CEO, AKQA



AKQA


Digital design agency AKQA is not the largest or most prominent organization at WPP, but a deck that Read presented to investors in January hinted at the value of this secret weapon that consulting firm Gartner called a leader in its category.

CEO and co-founder Ajaz Ahmed, who dropped out of college to launch the company in 1994 and joined forces with Martin Sorrell in 2012, is on board with Mark Read’s plans for a new, more tech-focused holding company.

WPP’s biggest traditional agencies struggle, especially in the US, but insiders say AKQA is one of its best-performing units in terms of annual growth. AKQA also has longstanding relationships with key clients like Nike, and it continues to pick up industry plaudits, winning two Grand Prix awards at last year’s Cannes Lions festival.

The agency’s work in fields like AI and ecommerce is critical to WPP’s growth. A former WPP CEO described AKQA as a “sleeping giant” and compared it to larger and more established firms like R/GA that specialize in product development as well as more straightforward digital design.

Jacqui Canney, global chief people officer



Getty Images


In one of his first important outside hires as CEO, Read poached Jaqui Canney from WPP client Walmart in early 2019 to lead talent operations.

She is tasked with attracting and retaining top talent as the agency world is struggling to fill positions and competing with more startups, tech giants, and consulting firms than ever.

As EVP of global people at Walmart, Canney helped the retailer adjust to the rise of Amazon. The fact that her predecessor at WPP, Mark Linaugh, retired when she came on is a sign of Read’s attempts to bring generational change to the company.

Several insiders said Read has placed a great amount of trust in Canney, who spent 25 years in HR at Accenture as it grew into a worldwide behemoth. In addition to managing talent, she helps train WPP employees to use new technologies and develop culture across the company’s more than 130,000 people in over 100 countries.

Jon Cook, global CEO, VMLY&R



VMLY&R


Read’s first big structural move was merging creative agency Y&R and digital firm VML in late 2018, creating a far larger network with 6,500 employees. To enable the new network to turn around web and mobile work quickly for clients, he named Jon Cook, who had led VML for more than 20 years, as global CEO while Y&R chief and 30-plus year WPP veteran David Sable moved into a non-executive chairman role.

Several insiders predicted that Cook would outlast other top executives, with one former WPP CEO describing him as “someone who really rose through the ranks and now runs the behemoth,” helping to erase the distinction between traditional and digital advertising. 

VMLY&R has picked up several new accounts, including digital and social media work for companies like Microsoft, in addition to opening a new office in Detroit. The agency is still defining itself, but during this January’s investor presentation, Read framed the merger as a success that could serve as a model for future moves.

Mel Edwards, global CEO, Wunderman Thompson



Wunderman Thompson


Chairman Tamara Ingram is getting ready to leave Wunderman Thompson, which will leave CEO Mel Edwards in charge of the massive network that employs an estimated 17,000 people worldwide and represents a key example of Mark Read’s plans to combine traditional and digital marketing.

Read served as CEO of Wunderman before stepping up to lead WPP, and multiple insiders say it remains his “baby.”

Current and former WPP employees said Read handpicked Edwards, who had reported to him as CEO of Wunderman in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, to succeed him as chief executive when the agency merged with J. Walter Thompson to form Wunderman Thompson in early 2019.

Edwards joined Wunderman as UK CEO in 2012 and helped win accounts including Coca-Cola and Shell; she was later promoted just as Read came on to lead Wunderman.

Sources said Edwards and Read’s relationship is one factor driving the evolution of Wunderman Thompson, which continues to absorb smaller agencies in North America and beyond in what insiders describe as a gradual decline of the JWT brand.

The sources said Read and Edwards are also close to Wunderman Thompson North America CEO Shane Atchison, who has led the consolidation and chose several former colleagues at fellow WPP agency Possible for leadership roles.

Laurent Ezekiel, global chief marketing and growth officer



WPP


WPP went without a CMO until December 2018, when Read hired Laurent Ezekiel, a 16-year veteran of rival holding company Publicis Groupe.

Read positioned Ezekiel’s hire as part of his effort to turn WPP into a company that did more than just make and buy ads. 

The CMO’s responsibilities range from managing WPP’s presence at the Cannes Lions festival and scheduling speaking appearances for top executives to visiting corporate offices around the world and defining how WPP presents itself to the public and advertisers.

Ezekiel has also been pushing the rebranding of WPP itself, which included a new logo and attempts to position the company as a partner, rather than rival, of digital giants Google and Facebook.

Perhaps most importantly, he leads new business efforts; as one senior executive put it, “Mark values his counsel.”

Richard Glasson, CEO, Hogarth Worldwide



Hogarth Worldwide


Richard Glasson started Hogarth in 2008 as more and more advertising companies started to realize there was money to be made in production work — which can encompass everything from location scouting and casting for broadcast TV campaigns to applying visual effects and editing digital video into bite-sized pieces for distribution across platforms.

Now, more clients go directly to production companies to carry out ideas developed by creative agencies — a potential threat to WPP.

This is where Hogarth comes in, and in recent years it has emerged from the shadows to become a more visible part of WPP, most recently opening a new facility in New York’s Gramercy Park Studios.

Glasson’s profile within WPP has risen along with Hogarth’s. In 2016, Grey’s internal production division Townhouse became part of Hogarth, and Ogilvy also announced a new partnership with the production house two years later.

Hogarth has a significant presence in markets outside the US, and one insider said it has even taken some business away from more traditional WPP agencies.

Robert Guay, global CEO, GTB



GTB


WPP took a big hit in late 2018 when Ford, its single largest client, moved work away from WPP, which had been Ford’s primary global ad agency for more than 70 years.

Less than a year later, Satish Korde, CEO of GTB, the division WPP had created to serve Ford, was replaced by Robert Guay, a move one insider says was directly facilitated by Read. GTB’s structure also shifted from a collective of separate agencies to a single entity with one revenue stream.

Guay’s role is particularly important given WPP’s hopes to win back its Ford business. Guay, who had formerly been North American managing director at Publicis Groupe’s Digitas, brought digital chops to the job and helped ensure that the company did not lose any more of the Ford business — including its critical media planning and buying account. 

Andrea Harris, group chief counsel and head of sustainability



WPP


As group chief counsel, Andrea Harris is responsible for all of WPP’s legal functions around the world.

She oversees 20-plus legal professionals who handle everything from mergers and acquisitions to regulatory compliance, data privacy issues, employment disputes, and general corporate governance.

She also co-leads the company’s sustainability efforts and helps write its annual reports, which are key to Read and chairman Roberto Quarta’s efforts to position the company as having a more responsible influence on the environment.

Harris has spent more than 23 years with WPP and moved into the group chief counsel role in 2006. She became head of sustainability in 2017 and sits on the company’s executive management committee.

Michael Houston, worldwide CEO, Grey Group



Grey Group


After buying JWT, Ogilvy, and Y&R to become the world’s largest holding company, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell acquired Grey Group for $1.52 billion in 2004.

More than 15 years later, Grey is one of WPP’s few remaining standalone creative agencies, and Michael Houston has risen to become an important — and relatively young — member of the executive committee.

A former account and business development director at firms including Y&R, Houston joined Grey as CMO in 2007. Then-CEO Jim Heekin promoted him to managing director, North American CEO, global president, and finally global CEO in 2017. Heekin’s recent retirement left Houston in charge of the entire operation and its 6,000-plus employees.

Grey has experienced some of the same streamlining and new business challenges as other creative agencies in recent years, but multiple sources confirmed that a proposed 2018 merger did not come to pass, and its recent work for clients such as Volvo and especially Gillette has earned attention in the press. One former WPP CEO said: “Grey keeps battling back.”

The agency, whose largest accounts include GSK, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly, has also moved more aggressively into healthcare and pharmaceutical.

Donna Imperato, CEO, Burson Cohn Wolfe



Burson Cohn Wolfe


The VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson mergers have gotten the lion’s share of press for WPP over the past two years.

But in early 2018, WPP made another foundational shift, merging Burson Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe, two of the top 10 PR firms by revenue, into Burson Cohn Wolfe.

Donna Imperato, who spent the previous 15 years as CEO of Cohn & Wolfe, was named to lead the new conglomerate, which also includes AxiCom, BWR, Direct Impact, GCI Health, HZ, PSB Research, Prime Policy Group and Y&R Public Relations.

Imperato has earned a reputation as an expert in B2B, healthcare, technology, corporate affairs, and crisis communications.

Public relations has not been the largest growth area for WPP or its rivals in recent years, but the practice remains critical — especially as firms go all in on creative and paid content, competing more directly with traditional ad agencies.

Toby Jenner, global CEO, Wavemaker



Wavemaker


In November 2019, GroupM gave WPP veteran Toby Jenner the key job of running Wavemaker, the product of a merger between media-buying agencies MEC and Maxus.

As one of the largest media firms within GroupM working for clients such as Ikea, L’Oreal, and Mondelez, it is a critical property for WPP.

Jenner’s promotion signaled confidence in his leadership from both Mark Read and then-new GroupM CEO Christian Juhl; it was Juhl’s first major move.

UK-based Jenner previously spent more than a decade at MediaCom, as chief operating officer, CMO, and head of business development.

He reported directly to CEO Stephen Allan and led new business efforts, most prominently a program called “Project Fightback” in which MediaCom recovered from its 2016 loss of its $2 billion Volkswagen business by picking up Uber, Walgreens, and other accounts.

Christian Juhl, global CEO, GroupM



GroupM


GroupM, which includes all of WPP’s media-buying agencies as well as the programmatic platform Xaxis, is the company’s single largest revenue driver. Christian Juhl was named global CEO in July 2019. He had been CEO of Essence, which handles digital ad buys for Google and has been one of WPP’s fastest-growing units.

He has made several key changes at GroupM, including folding mPlatform, a suite of tech and data tools once billed as the future of WPP’s media operations; naming new regional executives; and taking over for departing North American CEO Tim Castree. Insiders say Juhl aims to remake GroupM in the image of Essence.

For now, his main job is driving growth — especially in WPP’s most important and also challenged market of North America.

Beth Ann Kaminkow, global CEO, Geometry



Getty Images


According to WPP leadership, Mark Read sees commerce and ecommerce as central to his strategy.

Part of this approach involves rebranding Geometry Global, which had been known for brand activations and customer relationship management (CRM) work, as a creative commerce agency whose services include designing packaging and physical spaces.

In early 2019, Read named Beth Ann Kaminkow, who had been CEO of the consulting division of WPP’s Kantar, to lead Geometry. Since then, the agency has made several key creative hires as WPP tries to expand its experiential work.

Kaminkow has significant retail and client-side experience.

She was president and CEO of TracyLocke, an Omnicom agency specializing in shopper marketing. She then was CMO of Paris-based real estate company Westfield, where she integrated brick-and-mortar businesses with digital and ecommerce, making her a good candidate for Read’s agency leadership team.

In a sign of Kaminkow’s prominence, she was a featured speaker at the WPP Commerce conference in Miami from February 24-26.

Kyoko Matsushita, global CEO, Essence



Essence


When Christian Juhl was picked to lead GroupM, choosing his successor at Essence was critical since the digital media-buying and data agency was a rare bright spot for WPP.

The company named Kyoko Matsushuita to run the agency that works with such clients as NBCUniversal, Target, T-Mobile, L’Oreal and, most crucially, Google.

Another WPP executive said Read and Juhl have repeatedly highlighted WPP’s work with the search giant — on both the client and platform sides — as an example of an ideal business relationship.

Matsushita spent the previous five years as CEO of Essence Asia Pacific, where she helped expand WPP in the region. Under her leadership, APAC became Essence’s fastest-growing market; she also brings gaming experience to the job, having held top marketing roles at Sony and Electronic Arts.

Sanja Partalo, global head of strategic development and partnerships



YouTube


Sanja Partalo is a veteran of client teams at WPP’s Y&R and Johannes Leonardo who left WPP several years before returning to the corporate strategy team in 2016. She now reports to the C-suite and works closely with CTO Stephan Pretorius.

Partalo helps oversee the network’s tech strategy, including its product development and marketing efforts for platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat, Salesforce, Adobe, and Amazon.

She also leads WPP’s multi-million dollar Google Cloud business, which uses the tech giant’s cloud services to improve media planning while developing AI, image recognition, and sentiment analysis tools.

Partalo is a native Bosnian who grew up during the war that shook that region in the 1990s before earning her MBA at Columbia Business School. She sits on the boards of several tech companies including Fatherly and Subvrsive.

Lindsay Pattison, global chief client officer



Business Wire


Lindsay Pattison has a long history at WPP, serving as UK and then global CEO of media-buying agency Maxus before becoming chief transformation officer under Martin Sorrell.

Mark Read early on promoted her to the newly created role of chief client officer across WPP. 

Pattison has become a key confidante of Read’s as she tries to improve WPP’s relationships with its largest clients. She has traveled around the world to corporate offices, grown closer to CMOs, and replaced the leads on several global client teams.

Pattison is also increasingly visible in her new role. One current executive said “she seems to be everywhere” in recent months, speaking at events like Cannes and CES as part of an effort to “shake off [WPP’s] dusty image.”

Stephan Pretorius, chief technology officer



WPP


Before becoming CEO, Read led digital network Wunderman, where he picked Stephan Pretorius as UK CEO and head of technology.

Their shared interests in martech, adtech, and AI, and desire to get closer to companies like Google and Facebook, led Read to name Pretorius as chief technology officer across WPP in the same group of promotions that made Lindsay Pattison and Andrew Scott chief client and operations officers, respectively.

Pretorius has helped land new deals like one that lets clients advertise on the Google-owned navigation app Waze.

According to insiders, Pretorius and head of partnerships Sanja Partalo oversee WPP’s business across digital platforms.

John Rogers, chief financial officer



WPP


After taking over WPP, Read hired John Rogers, who was CEO of British retail giant Argos, to manage the company’s finances.

While Rogers remains new to WPP, multiple people said he, Andrew Scott, and Laurent Ezekiel are closest to Read when it comes to WPP’s core.

Rogers has echoed Read by calling WPP technology-driven “with creativity at its heart.” His work leading Argos’s move into the digital world and his experience at consulting firm Deloitte also play into Read’s emphasis on making WPP competitive for business transformation work.

As Read simplifies WPP’s portfolio — he has sold more than 40 businesses since taking over — there is no question that Rogers will be a key player.

Susan Schiekofer, chief digital investment officer, GroupM



GroupM


As chief digital investment officer for GroupM, Susan Schiekofer advises WPP’s largest clients on how to spend their digital ad dollars.

She is expert in helping advertisers navigate divisive political news sites to get their messages out. She also deals with matters of ad fraud, visibility, and measurement that are critical to marketers.

Schiekofer has spent more than 30 years at WPP, founding Ogilvy’s digital media-buying practice and working on accounts such as IBM before leading the AT&T business at MEC and eventually moving to GroupM, where she oversees digital work across all agencies.

A former WPP executive said Schiekofer is respected in the organization and has deep relationships with the top platforms like Facebook and Google.

Andrew Scott, chief operating officer



WPP


When Sorrell left WPP, Andrew Scott, a 20-year WPP veteran, shared the chief operating officer role with Mark Read while the search for a new CEO began. Once Read got the nod, he chose Scott as full-time COO.

Prior to the promotion, Scott had the same title for the UK and continental Europe, overseeing many of WPP’s most important global operations and acquisitions under Sorrell.

Over the past decade-plus, Scott has facilitated major acquisitions such as that of creative network Y&R, design agency AKQA, and digital media-buying firm Essence.

He also helped structure and finalize Read’s two biggest moves as CEO: The VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson mergers. 

These deals have been a critical part of Read’s attempt to turn WPP into a more digitally-oriented business — and while Scott is not as visible as other executives, he is one of the most powerful people within the company beyond Read himself.

John Seifert, worldwide CEO, Ogilvy



Ogilvy


More than 20 years after his death, David Ogilvy remains the best-known creative director in advertising — and John Seifert has spent over 40 years at the agency that continues to bear his name.

This history made Seifert an appropriate choice to succeed Miles Young as CEO of WPP’s most important creative agency when Young stepped down in 2016.

Seifert has guided Ogilvy through rough spots including the firing of global chief creative officer Tham Khai Meng for unspecified violations of the company’s code of conduct, controversy over a contract to create ads for US Customs and Border Protection, and a loss of business that led to senior-level layoffs in the US earlier this year.

A former WPP executive said that the Wunderman Thompson merger, which significantly reduced JWT’s profile, leaves Ogilvy as the last traditional WPP network with a presence in every market.

Ogilvy, which also includes agencies such as David, known for its Burger King campaigns and Latin American influence, is thus central to Mark Read’s attempts to offer clients a combination of tech and creative services — and it remains formidable under Seifert.

In its most significant recent new business win, Facebook CMO Antonio Lucio chose Ogilvy as global agency of record for Instagram without a review.

Chris Wade, chief communications officer



WPP


As the top PR executive at WPP, Chris Wade serves as a mostly invisible point of contact between WPP, investors, and the media.

It’s his job to help spread Mark Read’s message while also doing the inevitable damage control that comes with managing communications for a multinational company.

UK-based Wade is a veteran of the Sorrell days, joining WPP in 2012 as head of communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Since then, he’s been promoted to group communications director and, in June 2019, chief communications officer leading a team of PR professionals around the world.

He has a journalism background, having spent six years with the Guardian Media Group and Trinity Mirror, another British publisher, before coming to WPP.

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