At a conference in October this year you said that, in a complex environment, there is a real need for experimentation. Can you outline why?
There are two big shifts that are taking place – one is geographical and one is technological. The geographical one is not that difficult to figure out. If sanctions are lifted in Iran, that will be a market that opens, just like in Myanmar or Vietnam. But trying to figure out the technology shift is much tougher.
When I look at WPP’s revenues, they’re more than 50% different than they were 14 years ago. Back then, digital was close to zero. It’s now 36% and in the next 14 years I’d say the shift will be even greater. Take Digital, Fast-growth Markets and Data, which are our three pillars along with Horizontality – getting people to work together. You have to get your existing, traditional businesses to move into those fast-growth markets and to adopt a digital frame of mind. You have to get your digital brands to look at the fast-growth markets as well as the mature markets. Then, finally, you have to be willing to dabble with different structures, to try different approaches, eg 51% control, 20% associate interests, to make investments and to morph new models – which is what we did with [NYC-based ad tech company] AppNexus.
We’re a substantial company, the largest in our sector, but not large in a general sense. We don’t have unlimited resources and neither would I want to take the risk of paying some of the valuations that we see in the internet space. With AppNexus, a private company, we injected some revenue in return for equity and then topped up our stake to 15% with some cash.
This is, I think, a less risky, more considered, approach than splashing out large sums of money. It’s educated risk.
As someone with a business background, how do you reconcile expenditure on an experimental approach, which almost inherently guarantees a level of failure?
Post-Lehman Brothers in particular, but even pre-Lehman, companies have become too conservative in a slow-growth world. They’re too focused on looking down at their shoes rather than at the horizon, not focused enough on top-line growth. We can’t survive by just cutting costs, particularly in professional services. So we have to find the geographical pockets, the digital pockets, the data pockets and then win business by working together. Those are the four strategic pillars that are the most effective.
So your advice for the head of a brand or agency, for whom the bottom line is going to loom large, is to take a longer-term view and explore those pockets?
The long-term view is absolutely critical. I think there’s too much of a short-term view. The rise of financial procurement has made people focus too much on costs, lack of pricing power, slower global growth.
The average tenure of a CEO is five years, the CMO in America is two years, and the CFO in America is three years. These are short lifespans and not long enough to implement strong strategic change.