CMO of the Week: Laurent Ezekiel, Chief Marketing & Growth Officer at WPP
Shortly after WPP named Mark Read CEO in 2018, the company announced a three-year turnaround strategy. It positioned itself as a “creative transformation” company with a simpler, more streamlined offering that prioritized creativity (in various forms), data and technology across its agencies...
“Creativity powered by technology more important than ever. Innovation over the last month has accelerated what would’ve happened over 10 years.”
CMO OF THE WEEK
Laurent Ezekiel, Chief Marketing & Growth Officer at WPP
Shortly after WPP named Mark Read CEO in 2018, the company announced a three-year turnaround strategy. It positioned itself as a “creative transformation” company with a simpler, more streamlined offering that prioritized creativity (in various forms), data and technology across its agencies.
Part of this new strategy included a focus on four key areas: communications, experience, technology and commerce. But because of the coronavirus crisis, a shift in client priorities among these pillars is afoot. Laurent Ezekiel, Chief Marketing and Growth Officer at WPP, predicts the change in a post-coronavirus world as marketers prioritize digital products and services.
“If you think about our four pillars, we had the majority of our work in the communications pillar, which is advertising and media, pre-pandemic. Post-COVID, though, I think we will see an acceleration of the experience, commerce and tech pillars,” says Ezekiel. “If that shift happens, that is a positive step for WPP. Our strategy was for those pillars to accelerate a year and a half ago when we announced our new strategy.”
The COVID-19 crisis has forced thousands of companies to cut expenditures, including marketing and advertising costs. But as we begin to emerge from this crisis, whenever that will be, brands will double down on digital across the board, including ecommerce and customer experience.
Ezekiel’s not alone in this belief. Levi’s Global CMO Jen Sey told Brand Innovators last week that she also expects an acceleration of digital when the world starts to open back up. “We’ll see a return to normalcy with an acceleration in digital,” she said. “Not just digital in terms of marketing but digital in terms how we work together and how we sell….We will have to accelerate the integration of offline and online, and think about what a seamless offline/online experience is.”
“Creativity powered by technology is more important than ever now,” said Ezekiel. ”Innovation over the last month has accelerated what would’ve happened over 10 years. We’re finding that the companies that were considering going more direct-to-consumer, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) groups for instance, are looking at that extremely seriously and trying to move faster on that. This crisis has been such a shock to everyone and across every organization, but it is a huge digital-transformation opportunity and motivator.”
Agencies, naturally, are just as severely affected by the coronavirus as their clients. For its part, WPP, which owns global agencies like Ogilvy, Grey, Wunderman Thompson, AKQA and media network GroupM, announced it would be cutting as much as 20% of pay across its agencies, implementing hiring freezes and furloughs at some agencies, reviewing freelancer costs, and halting discretionary costs such as travel and awards.
In his role as Chief Marketing and Growth Officer, Ezekiel is responsible for driving awareness of WPP’s agency brands and capabilities in the marketplace, as well as growing client relationships. He joined WPP in May 2019 after more than 16 years at Publicis Groupe, working his way up from account management to president at Digitas while also serving as a client lead for some of the holding company’s major accounts and working on business development.
Brand Innovators caught up with Ezekiel to discuss how WPP is helping clients navigate their challenges, how its workforce is adapting to working remotely for the first time, how new-business pitches have changed, and how WPP’s creative transformation strategy has changed amid the coronavirus crisis.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Has your role changed since the coronavirus crisis began, and what are your priorities now?
It’s more important than ever to prove the value of the WPP network. This means connecting our capabilities, creating simpler structures and bringing together people across our agencies for our clients.
In terms of how my role has changed, I’ve been very involved in looking at how we can support our people around the world. As the pandemic started, the most important priority for the WPP leadership team was focusing our attention on helping our people stay safe, healthy, informed and connected.
We’ve also stepped up to the plate in terms of being a creative transformation company, meaning, we are thinking through how we can help businesses and brands adapt and accelerate transformation -- that is our bread and butter. So, though the pandemic is a shock, it’s also an event we’re designed to deal with.
Are you seeing a lot of brands holding pitches still? And has your new business strategy changed at all?
Our new business strategy is focused on helping brands build a bridge to the future. This feels more relevant than ever. Coming into the pandemic, new business was very strong. We were busy with many pitches all around the world. They varied from media, creative, experience, commerce, and so on. Of course, some pitches have been stopped. But interestingly, what I’m seeing is that the bigger pitches are not being stopped.
As far as how pitching has changed, it is a completely different world pitching virtually. You have to rehearse in a different way, you have to handle technology in a different way. And a chemistry meeting takes on a whole new dimension when it’s virtual. Preparation just takes on a different dimension, too. For virtual pitches, you need a plan B, which you don't necessarily need in a real life pitch -- when you walk into a room you need to be committed to a plan A. You need a plan B because the tech can be hard to predict, and the pitch may not be run on your preferred technology.
Do you foresee virtual pitches sticking around?
I see some of it sticking, to an extent. But the reality is if you're responding to a brief for a prospect, getting under the skin of that brand virtually is extremely difficult. One challenge with virtual pitching is we’ve seen a few times that product demos are very difficult to do. There’s the confidentiality situation. Some clients may be reluctant to show a demo virtually for security reasons. And experiencing the product is sometimes the most important thing a creative or strategic person can do.
Do we need to fly around the world to do an hour and a half briefing in the future? I don’t think we do, but I anticipate it being different depending on the stage of the pitch.
How is WPP working with clients as they also navigate this crisis?
The structure we have means our large clients have single global leaders who bring different parts of WPP together. Those leaders have been in close conversations with clients on how we can support them.
For example, Ogilvy worked with Dove to put work out to support healthcare workers. For the World Health Organization, Grey had a very simple message of “stay at home.” We’re helping our clients to navigate, take the right approach, be present, learn, innovate and do the right thing.
Clients are also coming to us to look at how they can use creativity for their strategy after things begin opening back up. If it’s an airline, they're thinking about messaging after a pandemic. If it’s a hotel, there are questions about messaging around hygiene.
From your view, are more clients pulling back spending than are keeping spend going as planned?
Are budgets under pressure? Yes. The overall picture is down. But we’re not finding that clients are pausing the agency relationships. As clients pull back spend, some media agency people will have less work, but some clients are asking for more than ever.
COVID has made clients interrogate their brand purpose even more. If there is a big focus on sustainability, for example, there’s even more of a focus on it now. Brands are discovering that they want to take a close look at what they stand for, not just for now, but for the next decade.
How do you see WPP emerging once it’s clear things will begin to reopen? Do you see a more streamlined company, either through selling or consolidation?
We’ve focused on streamlining and simplifying WPP for the last year and a half. This puts us in a much better position to adapt to the changes needed now.
I don't think there will be more consolidation at WPP, I don't see why we’d do it.
How has WPP’s agencies adapted to being almost entirely remote? Do you think agencies will be more open to remote work even after people are able to return to offices?
Many agencies have started to embrace a flexible working culture so remote working will become part of how they operate in the future. In-person meetings remain extremely important for WPP, but flexible working is here to stay.
I suppose a challenge for us, because we have 100,000 people, is that one size doesn’t fit all. We have to be sensitive to dynamics in each market. China, for example, is a top 5 market for us, and the U.S. is our biggest market, but there are contrasting situations.
We’ve also been looking to our global network to fulfill work in different markets. I’m doing quite a lot of work with our people in Shanghai, for example. They're more or less back in the office, and they helped significantly for a project we had to deliver in Europe.
What additional advice would you give client-side marketers right now?
After this pandemic is over your customers will remember how you responded to this crisis. Focus on being there for your existing customers and communities. Act quickly and with conviction. Be mindful of your tone but recognize that positive strength can be a force.
Maureen Morrison is an editorial and marketing consultant for Brand Innovators based in San Francisco.
This interview is part of our "CMO of the Week" editorial series.