Aishwarya Ramesh

“Consumers are more willing to pay for digital products,”: Mark Read, CEO WPP

'Disruption', 'unprecedented', 'agility' have become common catchphrases for work from home given the lockdown circumstances. Will it sustain?

LinkedIn, in association with Advertising Week, JAPAC has kicked off a two day long virtual conference relating to different aspects of disruption in the face of COVID - 19. Themes of the conference include brand purpose, consumer behaviour and trends, content and creativity, and digital transformation. The conference kicked off with a session by Mark Read, CEO of WPP. Read converses with Advertising Week's MD of global education Ruth Mortimer for a conversation on disruption as we go into 'recovery mode' from the coronavirus and its lockdown Brand Purpose

Before beginning the session, Read took a moment to acknowledge the ‘human tragedy’ that forced the world to change its way of working – the coronavirus and all the lives it has claimed so far. He added that the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ is on the rise and this way of working is new for many.

“People have always been busy, but now they have time to reflect on where they are and what they’re doing. Companies need to do the right thing at this time and they need to communicate to their consumers on what exactly they’re doing for their people and customers and actions always speak louder than words,” he says.

Mark Read in conversation with Ruth Mortimer
Mark Read in conversation with Ruth Mortimer

When asked on which trends are going to stick after the pandemic ends, he joked that the pandemic is accelerating the adoption of pretty much every major trend in the world. Read claims that as a result of this, purpose is moving up the agenda for marketers and digital transformation is changing the way companies work, in a few short weeks.

“In the USA, we’ve seen the adoption of online grocery shopping go from 5 per cent to nearly 20 per cent and that was supposed to take four years. Instead, it took four weeks,” he pointed out. Read splits company responses to the crisis in three main phases – react, recover and renew, and he adds that most companies in the world are at the recovery stage – especially given that some countries in the world seem to have the virus under control and economies are looking at reopening again.

Read emphasises on the fact that there’s a fundamental shift in how consumers view company and being led by purpose is more important now than ever. Clients right now aren’t keen on the ‘hard-sell’ and Read claims that this is where WPP’s strength in other areas of functioning comes in.

“We’re not solely an advertising agency and advertising is just one of the ways out there of reaching consumers. In the olden days, advertising and marketing were thought to be one and the same but now we understand that marketing is a much broader activity, beyond advertising – its also product and placement. We’re also seeing public relations move up the agenda at WPP and we’re figuring out different ways to make shopping easier for consumers and how their product address consumer needs at a challenging time,” he says.

He goes back to the point of acceleration of trends, pointing out that businesses on the wrong side of the economy are going to be more impacted by these trends. When it comes to spends on media, he takes the example of the USA’s financial crisis of 2008 and how it affected spending on newspaper ads – which did not bounce back once the crisis ended. Read also mentioned that a customer’s willingness to spend on digital products (such as Kindle books or on a Netflix subscription plan) has increased since lockdown began.

“Right now, many people live their life through digital brands such as Spotfiy, Facebook, Facetime, Houseparty, etc so there is willingness to pay for their usage,” he says.

To CMOs, Read mentions that its important to produce good quality creative work, possess agility in operational processes and that agencies and clients alike mustn’t lose the lessons learnt while working from home in the past 3 months or so. He adds that there were clients who believed in the old-world model of making sure all the agency work happened on-site and that it’s important to move past these older models of working and involve senior resources in the decision making process, every step of the way; mainly to eliminate time needed for approvals on work.

Big lessons for WPP’s working in the future

Read adds that it’s imperative to maintain the flexibility of this working style in the future – especially taking working parents into account. “One of the reasons we haven’t worked from home in the past is because we’re used to working at offices for say, the past 50 years or so. It is also much harder to meet a new client or onboard a new colleague, virtually. The future of WPP might have smaller offices with desks far apart keeping social distancing norms in mind, but I hope we don’t lose the agility we’ve gained in the last few weeks,” he says.

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