Mark Read got into advertising the old-fashioned way: he wrote to Sir Martin Sorrell and asked for a job. Read had just finished a scholarship at Harvard after studying economics at Cambridge, and the WPP chief executive invited him for an interview.
"I started the week after we bought Ogilvy in 1989," Read says, describing how he was 22 and "a corporate development executive, sat in Farm Street working on acquisitions".
Nearly 30 years later, he retains a youthful air, albeit with a touch of grey in his hair, and he is still working for WPP.
Apart from a seven-year break spanning the 1990s and early 2000s, when he worked at management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton and dot-com start-up Webtrends, he has been by Sorrell’s side for much of the WPP story.
Indeed, for a while, the wunderkind of WPP looked like the heir apparent, becoming director of strategy from 2002 and winning promotion to the board in 2005 at the age of 37. He spent the next decade overseeing WPP’s digital expansion and the acquisition of businesses such as 24/7 Real Media and AKQA.
Read finally got a chance to run an agency himself in 2015. He quit the WPP board and became global chief executive of Wunderman. The direct marketing shop had been founded by the Wunderman brothers in the US in 1958 and become part of Y&R in 1973, but it was struggling to adapt to an era of data-driven marketing and CRM, according to Read. "It had lost its way," he says.
Read set about repositioning Wunderman as a digital agency with a mantra of being "creatively driven, data inspired". He admits: "We can debate how long the word ‘digital’ will last, but clients understand it."
He talks about "personalised marketing rather than direct marketing" and "getting the right message out at the right time", although he adds: "I’m not sure consumers want things to be that personal."
What matters, he says, is being able to understand the creative process and combining that with a knowledge of people, data and targeting to drive sales.
Ultimately, Read claims: "We inspire people to take action. A lot of the success we’ve had is helping clients understand the whole customer experience – online and offline."
Read’s approach appears to be making headway. Wunderman "delivered its best results in five years" and last year won $75m in new business, including from Dyson, GlaxoSmithKline, HSBC and Shell, according to the WPP annual report. This year got off to a good start when the agency landed the combined BT/EE business, one of the UK’s biggest CRM accounts.
The lowdown on Mark Read
Read’s empire continues to grow. WPP announced earlier this month that Possible would become part of Wunderman, increasing its headcount by about a quarter to 9,200 staff. The enlarged agency has estimated annual revenues of $1.4bn and operates in 72 countries.
There is logic to the tie-up. Microsoft is the biggest client for both agencies and Read was instrumental in launching Possible, a merger of several WPP digital shops, in 2011. Possible’s roots in Seattle help, he adds, because it is close to Amazon, a growing force in media as well as commerce.
Read has also been busy moving Wunderman into consulting. He bought The Cocktail, a 250-strong digital transformation consultancy based in Spain, in June. At the same time, Salmon, WPP’s commerce consulting arm, became part of Wunderman.
He has been spurred into action after seeing big consulting groups such as Accenture move aggressively into marketing services. "We’re coming up against them more now than two years ago," Read says. Digital agencies such as SapientRazorfish and R/GA also frequently turn up in pitches.
He describes his time at Booz Allen Hamilton as "the most thankless task I’ve ever done – you’re just a cog in the machine". Read doubts such businesses can easily displace agencies because "they are largely driven by analysis, not imagination", he says: "We’re a creative organisation. In that, we do truly differ from Accenture."
However, he is not complacent about the competition, admitting: "We can’t always compete financially, so we have to work harder on other things."
That has meant investing in Wunderman’s culture. Read and Judy Jackson, global chief talent officer, have introduced leadership courses for women and You Time, an initiative to help employees work on their career and personal development. Other leading figures in Read’s team include Mel Edwards, formerly of M&C Saatchi’s Lida, who runs EMEA, and Caspar Schlickum, who used to be at Xaxis and now heads Asia-Pacific.
Zaid al-Qassab, chief brand officer at BT, says: "Like many a great leader, Mark’s leadership is most notable in terms of the excellent team that he has built." Read’s colleagues inside Wunderman describe him as "super-quick" and say he "deals with things straight away" when there’s a problem – habits that they think he learned from Sorrell.
Advertising isn’t in the blood. Read’s father is "an entrepreneur" and his mother is an orthodontist. He had a baptism of fire when he started at WPP because he looked after investor relations and dealt with the banks, just as recession struck in 1990. "One of the things about Martin is he does let young people have as much responsibility as they can handle," Read says.
It was a hairy time and WPP came close to defaulting on its debt. "I was probably inexperienced enough not to realise how serious it was," he claims, while recalling exactly how much the share price plunged.
He had spells at Ogilvy and Hill & Knowlton before doing an MBA at Insead and then trying life outside WPP. When he returned in 2002, Sorrell gave him digital as a brief when it was unfashionable in the wake of the dot-com bubble bursting.
Ajaz Ahmed, who sold AKQA to WPP in 2012, says Read was "quick" to embrace online and "continued to champion this pioneering spirit" as the medium evolved. "He combines the rigour and intellect of professional services with the vision of technology’s potential and the belief in creative impact," Ahmed says. "Mark is one of the most remarkable leaders in our industry."
Read’s self-effacing manner means he can come across as diffident, but he knows how to network – be it with investors at the WPP annual general meeting or the Soho House crowd at the House Festival, both of which he attended this year.
He is "proud" of setting up WPP Stream, an "unconference" where clients gather with tech and media bigwigs to pontificate and party in glamorous spots around the world. It is now a regular fixture in the Sorrell calendar.
Some are envious of Read’s closeness to the WPP chief. "Like Igor to Frankenstein," a UK industry figure jokes, likening the relationship to servant and master in the pre-Wunderman days.
More seriously, this agency leader suggests the fact that Read has not been a "practitioner" is a weakness. But others have risen to the top without hands-on experience of the craft, and Read exudes enthusiasm when Campaign asks, unprompted, to see some recent work and he pulls up videos for Investec, GSK and the US navy on his laptop.
He took a few knocks during his decade on the WPP board – notably in 2011, when 40% of shareholders voted against his pay rise, even though it was a fraction of what Sorrell earned. "I was quite surprised," he admits. WPP last disclosed Read’s pay in 2014, when he received £3.4m.
He would still seem a contender to succeed his mentor one day. "I wasn’t aware there was a vacancy," Read says, batting away questions about succession and how much longer Sorrell, who is 72, might stay.
However, there has been a sense in the past two months that Sorrell is in a hurry to reshape and simplify WPP in the face of slowing revenue growth. As well as moving Possible and Salmon into Wunderman, he has merged MEC and Maxus and inserted Neo@Ogilvy into Mindshare.
Read says clients want simplification, although he doesn’t think WPP has become too sprawling. "All large companies are complicated to some extent – as a people business, we are probably more complicated," he explains.
He insists the Wunderman/Possible merger isn’t about cost-cutting, although Shane Atchison, global boss of Possible, is leaving. "Both businesses are growing," Read says.
Arguably, the biggest problem facing digital advertising is the crisis of trust around fraud, brand safety and measurement. What does Read, who also holds the title of chief executive of WPP Digital, think? Fraud and ads appearing next to inappropriate content is "clearly wrong", he says, but marketers and agency chiefs also "need to educate themselves – I don’t think there’s anything that isn’t clear".
Some marketers and media owners might not like the fact that lots of intermediaries are taking a cut in the digital media supply chain, but it is a complex situation. Read explains: "In the old days, you could negotiate your media plan over lunch at The Ivy. Now you might be buying inventory on 100,000 websites. And there’s a real cost – you can add a lot more value to the media [through data and targeting]."
However, that doesn’t mean brands should feel it’s just a case of caveat emptor – "the agency should protect you", Read says.
As advertising and marketing are changing, Read believes Wunderman is on the right side of that shift and it has clearly moved out of Y&R’s shadow. "It used to be about that big idea that was expressed in a brand film," he says. "Now I think it’s about the customer experience that’s expressed through the work that Wunderman does probably more than through a brand film."
Read just might suit this more measured, less swashbuckling era.