Brandon Doerrer
Mar 1, 2024

VML global CEO Jon Cook on innovating amid WPP cutbacks

In a candid conversation with Campaign US editor-in-chief Alison Weissbrot at Campaign Convene, Cook touched on how VML is improving its innovation tools despite pressures from WPP to become more efficient.

(L to R) Alison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief, Campaign US; Jon Cook, global CEO, VML. (Photo credit: Erica Berger)
(L to R) Alison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief, Campaign US; Jon Cook, global CEO, VML. (Photo credit: Erica Berger)

In late February, WPP reported that its creative agencies, including VML, saw a 1.6% decline in organic revenue in 2023 as U.S. tech clients reduced their ad spend. The results came in after WPP announced a $158 million cost-cutting drive ahead of its Capital Markets Day for investors and analysts.

Despite this, Jon Cook, global CEO of VML, maintained that the agency born of a merger between VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson in October is continuing to invest in generative AI and other emerging technologies — despite the merger being driven in part by cost-cutting at its parent.

On Tuesday, February 27, Cook took the stage at Campaign US’ inaugural conference, Convene: Creativity Converged, to speak with Alison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief of Campaign US, about how the new 30,000-person creative agency is continuing to invest in technology and innovation as WPP chases efficiencies.

He said that WPP’s inefficiencies stem from being a giant company full of businesses with different back-end systems and modes of operation. But investing in AI and technology at the same time as addressing those inefficiencies is necessary.

“If you put two of any giant companies together…you’re going to have a little bit of efficiency you can create — you would be a bad leader if you took that much scale and didn’t find efficiency,” he said. “You’d be a really bad leader if you didn’t take some of that efficiency and reinvest it into making the company better.”

“We did have some duplication, especially when you get to the backend of the system,” Cook said. “You shouldn’t have 15,000 plus 15,000 equals 30,000. You might be able to do it with 100 less people.”

He added that VML doesn’t have plans to acquire more agencies — or merge with any other WPP agencies — for now.

It does, however, plan to continue updating its suite of AI tools for employees. Cook said that while he’s more excited about AI than afraid of it, he recognizes that he can’t project those feelings onto employees who may be nervous about their job security.

To mitigate those fears, he’s emphasizing that employees aren’t losing their jobs to AI, but instead will get to focus more on strategic tasks, like creative ideation, while letting AI handle repetitive tasks. He added that he isn’t concerned about what that means for younger talent, who will still being able to participate in pitches and flex their strategic thinking despite being new to the business.

Cook also said that VML is investing in platforms to streamline its back-end operations, which are currently “a bit messy” as they vary from location to location.

He identified a need to simplify the giant agency’s broad range of capabilities for clients. To do that, he puts each of its capabilities into one of three categories: brand experience, customer experience and commerce.

“Everything we do is some cocktail of those three things coming together,” he said. “They’re different from the capabilities that drive those things, which are creativity, strategy, technology, data, etc.”

VML breaks its offering into those three categories because creativity spans all of them, he said.

The agency’s next move will be launching new work for Coca-Cola this summer.

Campaign US

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