Steve Barrett
Mar 9, 2021

WPP's Mark Read and WBA's Aron Radelet: Behind the scenes of the $600 million pitch

The CEO of the world’s largest marketing services holding company and CCO of the world’s largest pharmacy unpick one of last year’s biggest pitches.


"When times are good, you tend to do things the same old way. When times are tough, you experiment," says WPP CEO Mark Read.

Read and Walgreens Boots Alliance’s CCO and SVP Aaron Radelet reflect on the process behind a vast six-month virtual pitch and the departure of the pharmacy’s CMO soon after the result was announced.

Last October, WPP beat out a determined bid from Publicis to retain the $600 million integrated marketing and communications WBA account, which encompasses PR, advertising and marketing and runs until 2022, with an option to extend until 2024. WPP was first appointed in 2017.

Under a WBA Partnership structure, WPP is now four months into its new phase of working with WBA to implement its transformational integrated marketing and reputation-management strategy.

WBA’s then SVP, global CMO and chief customer officer Vineet Mehra and global CCO and SVP Aaron Radelet co-chaired the procurement-driven process. Mehra departed WBA in February after two years in post to join online grocery delivery platform Good Eggs as chief growth and experience officer.

This is the story of the pitch.

Was it the biggest pitch of 2020?

Mark Read (MR): It was certainly our most important pitch and probably the highest-profile of the year for WPP.

How did a pitch like that work in lockdown?

MR: We really leant into the virtual pitching process last year and tried to turn it into an advantage. In any pitch you have to create a sense of chemistry and theater. In Teams calls you have to do the same thing. Meetings can’t be as long; you have to have breaks; you have to hear people speak. We thought a lot about that.

Hopefully we’ll learn a lot from this virtual way of working. I’m desperate to get back to meeting people and meeting clients as part of pitches is essential, but I remember we did a big pitch in LA for one of the studios and flew in 45 people from all around the world. I hope we don’t do that anymore. We’re going to learn a lot from the way we’ve run pitches and worked with clients over the past year.

How will lockdown change the face of the agency industry?

MR: The changes we’ve seen are much more fundamental than whether you’re working from home or the office. It’s about whether you’re working faster, smarter. By the time things get back to normal we’ll all have forgotten what normal was like.

Aaron Radelet (AR): The pitch process went deeper because we could have more breakout sessions on certain subjects. We were able to bring in more parts of the team. And we were able to integrate more between the marketing and the communications side.

If we looked at our original plans, we were looking at travel between London and Chicago primarily, maybe a stop-off in New York. We wouldn’t have had as many people in the meetings and we wouldn’t have had as many meetings. By the time we got to the point of making a final decision we had much more of a detailed remit going into the next phase.

Did you have any physical meetings?

MR: I had one in London during the whole process, right at the end. Everything else was done remotely.

AR: Of course, we knew each other before and that helped, because there was already a relationship. Then we could just get down to business and really talk about a lot of the details.

How does WPP approach a review where you’re the incumbent?

MR: When we started our relationship 3.5 years ago, it was quite a procurement-led pitch. It was about efficiency, effectiveness and saving money. There was an element of building the brand and joining communications together, but a major theme of the pitch was efficiency.

In this case the major theme was transformation. How do we help WBA move to communicate a vision of personalized health, personalized marketing, to put data and technology much more at the heart of what we do? While we also needed to demonstrate there would be savings, it had a completely different focus, which meant we had to have a completely different focus for our team.

Sometimes it is tough for agencies to take a hard look at the people. We leant into the fact we were incumbents. We had no sacred cows. We changed people before the review, during the review, after the review. We approached it from a fresh perspective to say what is the right answer and what team does WBA need for the future?

I’m always nervous going into reviews as the incumbent. But this is one of those cases where we were able to demonstrate a completely fresh approach to the client.

AR: In some ways we were facing the same issues. Both companies grew by acquisition over time. There were a lot of silos when I first came to the company. This was the perfect opportunity to work with the teams to tear down those walls a lot more.

We tore down the walls between the separate agencies within WPP and created a one P&L model where they’re working together more closely. We chose the talent we wanted, no matter what agency they were working with. I was able to integrate my global team for the first time, so we had a leadership team meeting more regularly and that helped us be better clients.

One of the primary focuses of the RFP was we wanted a one-team, one-jersey approach, where we felt we were on the field together. We basically wanted colleagues, not consultants. A colleague is there day in and day out, is part of the business. You don’t have to bring them up to speed every time a new project falls out of the sky.

That really helped us as we moved into the pandemic, because we had to move more quickly than ever. We needed to be spread across the organization and not worry about who was wearing a WPP jersey and who was wearing a WBA jersey.

We turned out product much more quickly and, because we approached it more with marketing, we were aware when marketing was doing communications, so with programs like influencers to get out the vaccine and addressing communities of color we shared budgets across the board and knew what marketing was working on and what communications was working on.

Is marketing and communications heading toward earned media?

MR: Aaron and the team wanted us to integrate marketing and communications and the fact that media is becoming more integrated makes that even more important, but many clients have not gone as far as WBA in terms of that integration.

The pandemic has brought marketing and communications much closer together and has caused earned media or earned communications to rise in importance.

In most downturns, PR is the first thing to get hit. But PR has been the most resilient of all our disciplines in 2020 and that speaks to its value today in the eyes of clients. They understand that communicating what they’re doing to their customers, investors, partners and particularly their people is critical.

But it comes together in more ways than that. Many earned media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are also paid media channels. Much of the content could sit across multiple channels.

We’ve just been working with Aaron’s team on a No7 launch that has a heavy earned component and some paid to promote it, but really it’s much more of an earned media campaign.

We’re seeing much more integration within WPP of our public relations colleagues with our advertising, creative and media colleagues. We were in another review last week that is completely integrated as well. The trend towards integration caused by the pandemic is critical.

When times are good you tend to do things the same old way. When times are tough you experiment and that experimentation has brought people together much more.

Ogilvy was one WPP agency that tried to integrate all the disciplines together under [former global CEO] John Seifert, but that’s being rolled back by [global CEO] Andy Main. How do you bring the WPP team together for one of those big integrated pitches?

MR: Integration is about culture and mindset, not about organization. We need to recognize the expertise of the disciplines and that those people, if they’re good, can collaborate and come up with the best answer.

Maybe John went a little bit too far with public relations. It needed to be given more recognition within the organization and that’s the direction Andy’s moving. But what they share in common was the desire to integrate disciplines. If we don’t integrate it, the consumer integrates it.

We know what the individual companies do best and everyone has a core to their discipline and things they can do around the edges. But we know an advertising firm and a public relations firm are a different animal.

AR: All the agencies we spoke to in the pitch process said it was very uncommon how integrated the RFP was and I’d like to see that as a trend as we move forward. The customer will never say “I know Walgreens has a great communications department but their marketing’s not so hot, or vice versa.”

We have to make sure the customer sees all of us, not just graphic design brands, that they see our people. And that was most important over the past year. They’re not going to trust a logo, they’re going to trust the people they interact with, and the pharmacist is at the very high end of reputation in general.

We don’t send out our suits to talk to the media or be a part of a marketing campaign, we feature our pharmacists. We started on the earned side. We would post a story on, on social media, we pitched a story to the Today show about how our pharmacists are helping in certain scenarios. That would go into more of our marketing efforts and influence what our campaigns are.

How did you feel when Vineet Mehra left WBA so soon after the end of the pitch? Were you worried there’d be another pitch in six months because there’s a new CMO coming in?

MR: Vineet did a tremendous job and set WBA off on the right direction. This is a relationship between two organizations much more than it was between two people. I was very proud of the way WPP is seen alongside Adobe and Microsoft as one of the core partners that WBA’s leadership team are looking at to drive change in the organization.

It was the most thorough review I’ve ever taken part in. That leaves us in a good position. Vineet left WBA set up in the right direction. He challenged us. And he and Aaron got a better result and a stronger partnership from that challenge. We do our best work for clients that have higher standards and push us the most.

AR: Foundationally, we’d gotten there. It was a good time for him to say, “We got there, everything is in good hands, we re-signed with WPP and we have the infrastructure in place.

Mark and I meet with the leaders of the team on a very regular basis. I’m now a part of the global leadership that Vineet had on his team and I’m attending those meetings. We tried not to lose momentum and to know what’s working so when Vineet moved on we were able to continue the collaboration.

It was a thorough review process but it helped us hit the ground running once we got out of October. We could go into what talent we need to switch up, what plans we already have in place, how we start executing right away.

Do you see other client-side and agency talent leaving to join startups or other entrepreneurial opportunities? Is it harder to keep talent?

MR: It’s always been hard to keep talent. There are always sexy new businesses and industries. I’m passionate about having more of our people with multidisciplinary experience, having worked across the creative, media and public relations parts of the business.

Take David Sable. He was CEO of Y&R, he worked at Wunderman, Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe and then went to be CEO of Y&R Advertising. We need to have more of that at WPP and more of that in our industry. If we’re going to be trusted advisers to our clients and can build the next generation of client leadership with people who have that breadth of experience, that’s what clients are going to find most valuable – that’s what a modern CMO or chief communications officer needs. Aaron needs to not just understand the media but also social media, technology, how to produce content more quickly and easily and how to use all these digital channels.

The demands of people are much broader and I’m working with [global chief people officer] Jacqui Canney to use the breadth of WPP’s offer to give people much more multidisciplinary experiences in their career. And that will create much stronger experience.

Evan Hanlon [global chief product officer at Essence], who runs our WBA business now, comes from a programmatic media background. It’s pretty interesting to see someone from that background running and leading a team. He’ll be a stronger leader as a result and we’ll be a stronger organization with people like that.

AR: Talent is talent. Smart is smart. Hard working is hard working. I would much rather have those qualities and they learn as they go along. They have to learn about a business or industries already.

For DEI and vaccine work, we now have regular meetings across WPP and WBA where we’re all talking to each other and genuinely learning from each other. I’d much rather have less people on the account but more full time.

There are these utility players that Mark’s talking about that can do one thing one day and then switch over the next and do something else, because they don’t need to ramp up about all the other information about the company.

The old-school model was to bring in the firm at the last minute, bring them up to speed, hope they sort of get it, they might add in a little bit more, we’re still in charge of execution - and it just doesn’t work very well.

If you look at the definition of communications and reputation management writ large, five years from now it will be talked about in a much different way in business schools. Right now, Kellogg Business School would still define PR as underneath the marketing blanket and they’d talk about consumer PR in particular. This year has proven it’s so much larger than that if you’re really able to get rid of all those divisions we’re talking about.

Mark is the CEO of the largest communications company in the world and doesn’t come from a PR and communications background, but he said “I see this as so much more valuable than I would have 12 months ago.”

What piece of work for WBA in the past four months really illustrates transformation in action?

MR: The work around the launch of My Walgreens is a really powerful example of what we’ve done. It’s bringing that personalized health experience to life for consumers.

Also, the work for the Walgreens CSR Report launch, where we’ve gone from thinking about it as a press release to thinking about it as an event, with Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky there.

AR: In the past when we launched our CSR report we’d print it, hand it out to everybody in the basement of a hotel and everybody would go on their way. This year we partnered with Bloomberg, had thousands of attendees, brought in special guests like [Obama Foundation president] Valerie Jarrett from our board and the CEOs of L’Oreal and J&J, two of our partners.

We were able to elevate the content, not only the videos we showed during the virtual meeting, but we also distributed that all through our social media channels.

Campaign US

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