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How to revive collaboration at work
MARK READ: I came in the office today on Monday morning, and the office felt busy. Our campus here felt busy. And I think it’s a sign that people are being productive.
We see the short-term productivity benefits of an extra hour off the commute. We don’t see the longer term more debilitating impact on learning, culture, creativity, that come from having a workforce that’s far too separate.
Personal productivity is not the only measure of business success. A business is about how you solve problems. And I think you can do that better, more often, if you are together.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Mark Read, the CEO of WPP — the world’s largest advertising company with thousands of workers across agencies from Ogilvy to AKQA to Wunderman Thompson.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of The Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response.
I wanted to talk with Mark because controversies over return-to-office versus remote work have never been hotter, and ad firms like WPP are wrestling with mandates, possible penalties, and cultural impacts.
The future of work is also being buffeted by the rapid adoption of generative AI, and here too, ad agencies are in the spotlight. Mark is particularly outspoken about the disruption he expects from AI, but he also shares specific examples of how the technology is improving output now.
Mark’s leadership perch across a global enterprise with global clients gives him a unique perspective on what brands and businesses most need to worry about, the risks they face, and the opportunities they need to embrace.
Let’s get to it.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian and I’m here with Mark Read, the CEO of advertising giant, WPP. Mark, thanks for joining us.
READ: Thank you, Bob, and great to be with you today.
Why Mark Read argues for in-office work
SAFIAN: I wanted to start with some recent news reports about some ad firms instituting in-office work mandates for their staff with promotion and compensation risks for those who don’t comply. When you and I talked previously, you said, I’d like to get more people back in the office, but there are different thoughts within our leadership.
SAFIAN: Why do you want people in the office more and has there been any consensus among your team?
READ: Yeah, look, I think the consensus is generally that when people are in the office, they’re more collaborative. Ours is a creative process and collaboration is key to it. I think people are more productive. You know, people get inspired from each other. I think the difference is not that we’d all like people back. It’s like, is a mandate the right way to go? To some extent, I think we have to inspire people to come back to the office. People have to want to come back. Pre COVID, the assumption was, you came to the office and you had an exception to work from home. Sometimes that feels now like, you work from home and the exception is coming in the office. That’s kind of what we need to shift and mandates may form part of it, but I’m sort of more of a believer in carrots than sticks.
SAFIAN: I mean, there’s some people who feel like, oh, I don’t have to waste that time commuting back and forth to the office. Or it opens up new talent pools. There’s some folks who are more hospitable, maybe working from home sometimes than in the office.
READ: Yeah, look, I am sure some of that is true, but my argument back to those people is, personal productivity is not the only measure of business success. How many emails you answer in a day or how many zoom calls you do is not really what business is about. A business is about how you solve client problems and how you help clients succeed. And I think you can do that better, more often, if you are together. Sure, there are times where you can save the commute, but I was in Mumbai last week, we had a board meeting there and it was really interesting talking to a young woman who works for us there. She commutes in an hour and a half each way, every day. Now she comes in four days a week. She used to come in five days a week. But I thought I’d pull our office statistics to sort of give us some fact on this. Shanghai, we’re running at 75%. Mumbai, 64% average occupancy. Here in London, 52%, Milan, 45, and New York, 24. And in the U.S., I’d say we vary between 15 to 25% occupancy. I think we should be in the office more often in New York. And I think talking to my colleagues and other business leaders in Mumbai, they worry about the competitiveness of U.S. business given the attendance in the office, I would say, to be polite.
SAFIAN: I mean that gap is kind of extraordinary in different locations.
READ: It’s amazing, isn’t it? My experience of working in America is it used to be a little bit of a sort of FaceTime culture, right? And I think people learnt in COVID they could get back control of their time. And I think that people are reluctant to give it. So we have to have a different contract, emotional contract with our employees. I’m not one of these people that says, you have to be in the office five days a week. And I think we have to give people flexibility, but we need to get somewhere closer to London than we are today in New York.
SAFIAN: Don’t you save money if you don’t have people in the office? In other words, if you don’t have as much office space, financially, is it better for the business?
READ: Well, yeah, we save some money, but if you staff your offices to be busy three days a week, and it seems everyone wants to come in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, actually, it’s massively inefficient. We have these buildings empty four days a week. I think the big thing is around building a company’s culture and how do we train young people? Most of the things I learned in my job, I learned from people around me, overhearing being in meetings, seeing how they dealt with situations. That doesn’t happen on a zoom call from home.
We see the short-term productivity benefits of an extra hour off the commute. We don’t see the longer term, more debilitating impact on learning, culture, creativity, that come from having a workforce that’s far too separate.
SAFIAN: For some workers, the message that they sometimes receive when they hear, oh, you have to come into the office is, oh, I don’t trust you that you’re working hard enough. How do you balance that sort of trust and what your relationship is with your team?
READ: That’s in one part why we haven’t done a mandate. All I would say is we have one board member closely associated with the supermarket, and I know they’ve moved their cashiers from Saturday to Thursday and Friday, because the shopping week is evened out a little bit. You see anecdotes about the cheap midweek golf course being busy. I don’t want to be too cynical. Look, I think we have to trust our people.
SAFIAN: And I guess there’s a subtext I’m hearing in your words that the number of hours worked is not really the measure, and the magic sometimes comes in those moments when we’re together in the office.
READ: It’s not about the number of emails you answer. Not everything you measure is important. In fact, many of the things that are most important are unmeasurable.
There was a time where, frankly, coming into work, you came in because you liked your colleagues. And I don’t think we should all be locked away at home on our own all day long either. I don’t think that’s healthy for people. I think coming into an office and being around other people is in general good for people’s mental health. And I came in the office today on Monday morning and the office felt busy. Our campus here felt busy. And I think it’s a sign that people are being productive.
How AI will disrupt the advertising industry
SAFIAN: So I want to ask you about AI. WPP acquired AI firm Satalia in 2021. You announced the partnership with Nvidia earlier this year. You told me, AI is going to fully disrupt our business over the next five years. It sounds a little ominous. Can you explain that?
READ: Well, look, I think that for the first time we can see that computers can do what we thought only people could do, right? Take photos, write copy, create press releases, not a perfect job of it, but certainly enough for the first draft, to help our brainstorming to inform a creative team.
And then if you think further out in the future, you can see the potential for computers to totally automate the process. You’re sitting in a client office and you want to launch a new ad for Dove, reaching this audience over this period of time at this budget, press a button and it goes out. Now, I think it’s some time before we get to that place, but I think many of the tasks we have, AI can play a fundamental part, sometimes in replacing the human quotient, sometimes really in empowering people.
AI is amazingly empowering to our organization, but it will be also disruptive.
SAFIAN: Are you using these tools with clients today?
READ: A great example is this work we did in India for Cadbury’s — a Mondelez brand where we took Sha Rukh Khan, probably Bollywood’s most famous actor. It enabled hundreds of thousands of small Indian businesses to use him in their commercials. They could then send through WhatsApp and Gen AI enabled us to manipulate his image and his voice, with his permission, by the way, to create these ads. Or we’ve done an ad for Virgin Cruises with Jennifer Lopez, hence the Gen AI, but allow people to create their own personalized invitation to come on a virgin voyage.
We’ve built a creative platform called Imagine. We get quite long briefs from clients — take a 30 page brief and it will summarize the five key points of the brief. I probably need to read the brief against the five key points, but it saves some time. We might use Gen AI to say, come up with a new campaign idea for a new, bigger Kit Kat.
Actually, I tried this and it’s quite interesting because one idea was have a bigger break with the new Kit Kat. Actually, the AI had picked up that the core intrinsic value of a Kit Kat was this notion of “have a break,” and combined that with bigger. Now, is that the best slogan? I don’t know, but I think that it’s a starting point from which creative people can take ideas and it shows the potential that this technology is heading.
Why leaders should be experimenting with AI now
SAFIAN: You sound personally curious and intrigued about GenAI. You’re playing with it yourself. How do you get comfortable with it? And a lot of CEOs are sort of struggling with the right way for them to understand and use AI, and I’m curious if you have advice for any of our listeners about how you do that.
READ: Like anything in life, you’re only going to know about it if you try it and use it yourself. In 2008, 2009, we did a board meeting in Palo Alto, and we got young people to come in and get the board signed up to Facebook and upload a video to YouTube for the first time. And I think it’s a bit like that where we are with AI. People have to get on to Mid Journey. We have a way of working with clients where in an hour, we ask clients to develop a new product and come up with a campaign for its launch. And they can really see what AI can do.
And by the way, you are creating a brand for a client in an hour that sometimes those clients would’ve taken six months or even a year to do, right? So the increase in cycle time is quite substantial. When you do that, you see what the technology is really good at. It’s really good at coming up with ideas, but it doesn’t really know what’s a good idea and what’s a bad idea. The other thing it doesn’t know is that often in our business, the trick isn’t answering the brief. The trick is, is that the right brief or the wrong brief, right? Because clients come to you with one thing, but actually something else is better. And my best example of this is some work we did in Australia. So clients came to us. We’ve got these free range eggs, the chickens roam over acres of land, they’re very healthy, lead happy lives, and the eggs taste great.
Can we do an outdoor campaign in Sydney to promote them? So we put that in the creative department, and actually a young woman in the creative department said, you know what? How about this? In Australia, on every egg, you have to print the date the egg was laid. What about if we printed the number of steps the chicken took in laying the egg? So the team designed this Fitbit, they strapped it at the back of the chicken and they calculated the chicken would take four and a half thousand steps. They could print the number easily on the eggs. And this idea really captured everyone’s imagination. The eggs flew off the shelf. It really brought to life what they were doing. But the answer was a totally different answer from the brief we got, right? Now, AI will come up with a fantastic poster. It’s not going to tell you to strap a Fitbit to the back of a chicken, you know?
SAFIAN: The vision of a chicken with a Fitbit on its back is hard to shake, but so are the lessons about AI’s impact and the vast gap between in-office numbers in the US versus elsewhere. Coming up, we’ll hear Mark’s insights on optimism versus delusion, the new risks in being a purposeful company, and more.
SAFIAN: Before the break we heard the CEO of WPP, Mark Read, make the case for more in-office work, and for more reliance on AI. Now we delve into leadership challenges about managing a workforce amid disruption, and the rising complications of leaning into purpose. Plus, the line between optimism and delusion, and his AI strategy over 3 months, 12 months, and 5 years.
We were talking earlier about encouraging people to come back to the office and some of the conversation about AI also makes people who are workers uneasy. Do you hear back from your team, concerns about what AI will mean for their jobs?
READ: We’ve got to embrace these tools. We know what jobs they will disrupt, but we don’t know what jobs AI will create. And I’m sure it’ll create many, many jobs. If I look at WPP, probably half the jobs inside the company didn’t exist 20 years ago. We didn’t have social media managers, we didn’t have programmatic media managers. We didn’t have search engine optimizers. I could go on … e-commerce people.
Net-net? Will we have more people or fewer people in the future? I think the jury is out on that. Group M, our media business, has been most impacted by technology, has seen its employment grow quite strongly over the last 10 years, because technology needs people to manage. No one wants to let these computers totally go off on their own. And so, the computers tend to cut problems down into finer and finer things that need more and more people to manage.
How Mark Read balances micro and macro perspectives
SAFIAN: One of your colleagues said to me about you, he said he’s a details person, which he meant in a good way. And I’m curious, what does that mean to you and how you balance between details and strategy as a leader? So you don’t get pulled into the weeds, but you stay informed about what’s going on?
READ: Yeah, I think my job is to give people a sense of direction about where we’re headed, but also understand whether or not we’re getting there. I mean, I think I’m quite a sort of practical person, so I like to understand how these things work in practice. I’d sort of like to think about it as curiosity as much as being in the detail.
People sort of panic a lot about the future, you know? And I think we’re an industry that has demonstrated its ability to weather a lot of disruption. I mean, what makes running WPP so fascinating is we deal with many of the world’s largest organizations. Dealing with some of the most difficult issues in society around purpose, and guiding clients on tricky reputational decisions. And at the same time, we are coming up with creative ideas that really engage consumers at the intersection of fashion and entertainment and music.
We have seven and a half thousand people in China, 10 and a half thousand people in India, fantastic business in South Africa, Brazil. That global reach may make WPP hard to manage, but it’s a fantastic power to our clients.
SAFIAN: I mean, running a business the size of WPP, everyday you could find things going on in your business that like, oh, that’s a disaster. And you could find things that, oh, that’s great. How do you know what the balance of those things are?
READ: Bad news tends to rise up any organization more than good news. Look, I think ultimately you just have to have to look at the overall numbers. Are you winning more new business than you’re losing? How are your relationships with clients? Are there more pieces of work that you’re proud of, showing into colleagues or friends or sometimes my kids? So there’s softer, less tangible metrics. You’re right, we won’t win every new business pitch much as I would like to. And we are a cyclical business as well. When times are tougher economically or businesses cut back, we’re inevitably impacted by that. And we’re also an optimistic industry. Optimistic is one of our three core values as a company, but we have to make sure that optimistic is not delusional, right? I guess that’s probably my task. Let’s not be delusional about things and let’s just bring a sense of reality.
The challenge of taking a stand on social issues
SAFIAN: When we talked last time, you brought up purpose and the challenge over the last year that has grown for brands, clients, who are thinking or forced to take positions on societal issues.
READ: Those two words you used, thinking and forced, that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it? I mean, I think there was a time during COVID where everyone said companies need to lean into their purpose. They need to do the right thing. And I think the Bud Light moment was in some ways, a turning point that made CMOs and CEOs realize that there was no easy out in this purpose conversation. You couldn’t appeal to one group without thinking through, is that really what I want to say? Is that really the right way to achieve my marketing goals?
If I get called out on it, am I prepared to stand up for what I believe in? And I think all of those are questions that companies need to ask. We’re asked, as you can imagine, to weigh in on many of the topics facing society every day. And we try to really do so when it’s directly relevant to our business or to our people. Where people are coming into trouble is where they, I don’t want to say lazily, where they’ve done things they thought for the right reason and then when they’ve got challenged, they’ve sort of had to reevaluate it. And there’s no way out of that reevaluation without annoying at least half the population. And that is a challenge to people today.
SAFIAN: There’s some news reports recently, in the wake of Climate Week that WPP has more fossil fuel clients than any other ad company. And there might’ve been a time where, well, that was something to be proud of. And now, there’s some corners that are saying, oh, that’s something to be criticized about.
READ: But the other thing is, there’ll be other people that would criticize us for not taking those clients. So that’s where it’s got even more challenged. So look, my view has always been that climate change is real, that we need to move to a low carbon economy, and that energy companies, as I prefer to call them, are going to have to play a role in doing that. Not everybody inside the company agrees with that, and not everyone out there agrees with that, which is fine. I also think, though, that if we were to resign those clients, we might be criticized for a violation of free speech and not enabling them to talk. So I think that’s why I think the world has got more difficult today. You can be criticized for both sides on any decision you make.
READ: Ultimately, I guess it does become my decision, but us working for a particular brand or cause doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with every element of it. I do think that the free speech angle of this cancel culture debate has got more merit than some people give it. We can’t be in a society where if you don’t like what someone says, you try and withdraw their right to say it. And I have been more…become maybe a little bit more sympathetic to that point of view over the last year as well. So it is a challenge.
SAFIAN: You guys are in the persuasion business, obviously. Do you feel like part of your role as a business is to help persuade your clients to operate more morally, socially, acceptably?
READ: We are responsible for one in four, one in five of the world’s commercial messages, either creatively or through our media business. And I think with that comes some responsibility to try and shape that. About four years ago, we decided to try and eliminate single use plastic across our business. And we’ve had pretty good success in doing that. But I think one of the benefits of doing that were the conversations that started with clients about their own efforts to reduce single use plastic in their business. But one person’s persuasion is another person’s imposition, if you like. And ultimately, I think we have to reflect the ability for people and companies to have freedom of speech and to advocate their positions, and to respect people’s intelligence, that they’ll decide what is right and wrong and what they believe and what they don’t believe.
What’s at stake for WPP?
SAFIAN: What’s at stake for you in the choices you’re making?
READ: I think the biggest challenge we have is figuring out the impact of AI and our business in the next three months, the next year and the next five years. How do we have conversation with clients about how to use this in their business? How do we build AI into the services we offer clients in a way that will keep us competitive? If we spend too much time focusing on three months, we’ll forget the future. Too much time focusing on the future, we won’t be able to deliver in the short run.
What makes me positive is, every week, someone sends me a new campaign using AI. Sometimes I think, oh my God, there’s all these disconnected things going on. But you have to live with some level of disconnection. And I think the fact that people are embracing it, is probably better than me trying to control it from the center.
SAFIAN: You have a tolerance for some messiness in this evolution.
READ: Maybe too much tolerance, but I think that you have to let a thousand flowers blossom. And the sort of people that work at WPP are innovative, curious people. So the best way to motivate them is to let them do things. And then you have to say, well, okay, these are the things where we’re really going to focus our effort, and these are the things where we’re really going to make an investment. And I think that’s sort of the place we’re at today.
SAFIAN: Mark, this has been great. Thanks so much.
READ: Thank you Bob. And thanks for having me on.
SAFIAN: Mark’s experience at WPP is like a window into the broad sweep of the global economy. What I take away is that leadership requires an openness to change, and that means an openness to uncertainty and risk. What’s required is thoughtfulness about those risks, embracing optimism without delusion, and knowing what principles, values and practices you’re committed to standing behind, no matter what.
I’m Bob Safian. Thanks for listening.