In only his first year as CEO of WPP, Mark Read has been voted by his peers as the industry’s most influential person (according to Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies report, sponsored by MiQ).

Nick Watt, Econsultancy’s Head of Partner Content, took the opportunity to talk to Read about the challenges and opportunities WPP and the whole of the digital agency sector faces and why agencies are still vital partners in helping businesses grow and develop.

What follows is an abridged version of the interview, which will appear in full in the Top 100 Digital Agencies 2019 report.

ECONSULTANCY: Congratulations on being voted the industry’s most influential person by entrants into the 2019 Top 100. It’s just a year since you took over the role as CEO at WPP. How’s the first year felt?

MARK READ: We set out a three-year plan to return WPP to growth, and I feel we’ve made tremendous progress in the first year. We’ve taken some of the tough decisions like bringing VML and Y&R together, and bringing Wunderman and JWT together, and the decision to partner with Bain Capital on Kantar. We had our top 150 people get together last week in Brooklyn. And I’d say the mood inside the company is extremely positive. People are committed both to our mission – to really commit to creativity as an organisation – as well as to our plans around our investments in technology, and we’re starting to see the results.

ECONSULTANCY: You were named Financial Times & HERoes Champion of Women in Business.  How important do you think being a big supporter of both diversity and equality is, not only within your business, but within the agency world in general?

MARK READ: I think it’s critical. To be successful for our clients, we have to reflect the world in which we live, the society in which we live. But more importantly, I think it’s just the right thing to do. And I’m pleased that our board is now 38% women, and the number of women running our 20 biggest brands inside WPP has doubled in the past year.

This week we announced that we’ve signed up to an initiative called The Valuable 500 – a group of 500 companies committed to putting disability inclusion on the leadership agenda. So we’re tackling all areas of diversity inclusion.

WPP CEO Mark Read
WPP CEO Mark Read

ECONSULTANCY: What do you think being a digital agency means in 2019? What are clients wanting that you feel is different?

MARK READ: You may know we’ve been trying to ban the use of the word digital at WPP. All of our agencies need to be “digital”. I’d rather we were more precise. We should talk about technology, which is really what we mean when we say an agency’s digital. We mean that they understand technology and how technology is shaping the world. And I think all agencies need to do that.

ECONSULTANCY: One of the big trends we’ve seen in the Top 100 Report over the last few years has been around the rise of the big consultancies who’ve started to move into the market. As a business which is known for marketing excellence, how do you respond to some of the other elements that some of these big consultancies can offer, that goes beyond the marketing piece?

MARK READ: I think WPP will inevitably look a little bit more like a consultancy. But I still believe that our creative skills are what makes us distinct. We do have strong technology capabilities within the company. One of our agencies, now Wunderman Thompson Commerce, built the sainsburys.co.uk ecommerce platform from end to end.

And in the Netherlands we competed against Accenture for the Vodafone Ziggo business, and we were successful. So I think we can demonstrate that we can be successful against the consulting firms, and to some extent we need to learn a little bit from them. And I believe they’re trying to learn a little bit from us. I don’t see why we can’t both be successful.

So I don’t like portraying this as a zero-sum game. I think the companies that are really successful surprise and delight their customers in different ways. And a lot of that’s to do with the power of creativity, and the power of ideas. We’ve got some work to do and some skills to learn, but I think that I’m very positive about the opportunity for us. That’s why we called [ourselves] the Creative Transformation company.

ECONSULTANCY: How do you respond to the competition from independents who can be perceived to be more agile and have a closer relationship with their clients? Do you buy into that?

MARK READ: No, I think that the great thing about our industry is the independents have always challenged the incumbents, or the bigger players, if you like.

The trick at WPP is to blend the scale and resources of a big company with the agility of a small company. And that comes through the teams of people that we have, the ways in which we work, and the culture that we’re trying to build inside the organisation. I hate the notion that independents are by definition more agile, or more flexible, or smarter. I think we need to have a disproportionate share of the bright people, the better technologists, creatives inside WPP. At the same time, I welcome the competition that we do get from independents. And we’ve really benefited from companies like AKQA or Essence joining WPP. I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ajaz Ahmed.

MARK READ: Obviously a big part of your business is media agencies. We’re seeing a move by some large global advertisers to run their own programmatic advertising. What does that mean for you?

MARK READ: Well, you may say that I would say this, but our belief is that in-housing programmatic media is a mistake for several reasons. Our clients should be experts at buying digital media and making sure that their agencies do the best job, and they need strong agency partners to do that. Clients talk about integration, and that means ensuring your programmatic media is close to your non-programmatic media – is close to all of your media, if you like. You don’t want to do this in isolation.

There are tremendous insights you can get from programmatic media that can inform your television buys. I’d hate that to be lost. I think that when you work with an agency, we can recruit and develop and provide career paths to the best talent. That’s harder, over time, for clients to do.

Another challenge is technology, which is moving at a tremendous pace. [Clients] need to have an agency partner with the breadth of resources, access to the APIs, and technology skills to adapt to it.

Agencies provide objectivity, they provide benchmarks, and they provide insight on performance across the whole market. And I think it’s very hard for in-house programmatic teams to know objectively, what targets should they hit? Are they doing well or are they not doing well?

Download the Top 100 Digital Agencies 2019 report.