“I think that we’re all going to come out of this situation with kids much, much more connected than before… But it’s going to bring with it a greater sense of responsibility in making sure the internet is a safe place for children.”

In Episode Two of #Kidtech Season Two, we were joined by Mark Read, CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising and communications company. You can listen on Spotify, iTunes or Soundcloud but the interview transcript is below, for those who prefer to read rather than listen:

Dylan Collins: Welcome to #Kidtech, the series where we interview the key people shaping the global kids digital media sector. I’m Dylan Collins, CEO of SuperAwesome. Today I’m very pleased to be joined by Mark Read, CEO of WPP, which everyone listening will know well as the largest advertising and communications holding company in the world. Mark, welcome to #Kidtech.

Mark Read: Thanks very much for having me, Dylan. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.

Dylan Collins: Mark, we’ve got a lot of very interesting topics to talk through but I’d love if you could talk a little bit about your background. I mean, obviously everyone knows that you are CEO of WPP, but can you talk about how you got here and what your journey has been?

Mark Read: Yeah, I’ve been CEO of WPP for the last 18 months, and prior to that I was running Wunderman, which was then one of our largest digital agencies. I had a number of roles in WPP. I actually started my career at WPP. I’m not embarrassed to say – in 1989, I worked in the center for a few years. Then left to spend some time in management consulting, which I found a thankless task, and then launched an internet business called WebRewards in sort of 1999 to 2001 in what was then called the first internet bubble. I’m not quite sure we’ve ever had a second internet bubble, but I saw the kind of roller coaster rise of the internet, starting with the two of us in the business in a room signing a document through a fax machine.

We did it with a partnership with a company called Webmiles in Germany. We ran the UK business and we grew to about 30 people. And then there was the sort of famous last minute.com IPO day, which sort of marked the end of the first internet bubble and things sort of unraveled from there. But you learn a tremendous amount around running a small business as you’re running a big business and running a small business. I wouldn’t like to say which is easier and which is more difficult. We each have unique problems.

Dylan Collins: Yeah. But there certainly are some similarities that come through. I think a lot of the principles are the same-

Mark Read: This is one of the challenges of working from home. My son, Fred. Say hello.

Fred: Hi.

Dylan Collins: Hello, Fred.

Mark Read: Okay. Fred, I’m just doing something so can you- 

See, I locked myself in the attic. You can edit that in or out as you wish.

Dylan Collins: Oh, I think we should absolutely leave that. I think it’s an excellent reflection of the environment everyone’s dealing with right now.

Mark Read: All right. So where were we?

Dylan Collins: It’s almost like sort of being back in your startup days, I suppose.

Mark Read: Yeah. In some respects. So I think, look, I say… We’ll get onto this later. We’ve seen a decade of innovation take place in a month, really. It’s a funny old time.

Dylan Collins: It is. I mean, let’s talk about COVID-19 because it’s obviously dominating absolutely everything. And maybe, I mean, it’s I suppose timely that your son came in there for some tech support. I mean, over half the world’s kids are now at home. They’re probably going to be at home for the next six months. And it feels like they are running around the home. They are adopting technology and products and services. And things like Zoom, which were enterprise products, are now becoming family communication devices, which they were never really designed for.

I mean, when you look at WPP’s global client base, how are they trying to think about this particular shift? Are they adapting to the family focused type of existence? What are you seeing on the front line?

Mark Read: So I think, depending where you are in the world, it’s three to four, so six weeks into the crisis, I guess, is the most accurate word to describe it. Clients are reacting, travel and tourism companies, automotive companies, non-food retail obviously have found things most difficult. Technology, food, retail health, a number of sectors, packaged goods, clearly there’s continued demand with their products and how they communicate at the current time is really important, thinking it through.

I think today companies are in the re-plan mode. I think we’re going to be in this for quite some time, and so I think we need to learn some new behaviors during this time. I realize that they’re going to be bigger in the future. For example, I was having a conversation yesterday with our people about e-sports. Now, with no formal sports, kids are teaching their parents about e-sports. So I think we will see e-sports being a much bigger thing after this than it is today.

And we’re thinking about how we can help brands that would normally, let’s say, sponsor football or tennis give some of that money into e-sports, but demand for that would be driven by children. I think I said at the beginning, this is like a decade of innovation in a month. If you think about it, the way we work, communicate, fly, travel, shop, make bank payments, and educate our children. The volume of innovation in education, I think is going to be one of the biggest benefits to come out of this. The education system hasn’t really innovated in 200 years. Or some might say 500 years. But it’s certainly going to innovate in the next three months. I think kids and family are at the heart of it.

Dylan Collins: Yeah. I mean, do you see brands trying to adapt their marketing? Are they spinning up innovation teams? Or is it simply too soon for them to be thinking about sort of long term changes? Clearly we have disruption now for the next three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine months. Are brands internalizing this as real long term change? I know you mentioned things like e-sports and education, which I absolutely agree with, but do you see sort of more emergent behaviors? Or do you think it’s going to take another two or three months before that materializes?

Mark Read: So I think that will take two or three months. I mean, we did some research in the US and it was quite interesting, so 84% of Americans say how companies or brands act today is important to their loyalty. Right? So what you do today is going to be really important. 62% of Americans believe it’s extremely or very important for companies to use their voice. So, brands should continue to communicate. And Americans most wanted to hear about what companies are doing for their own employees and for their customers. Keeping the people employed and keeping them safe. So, there is a demand from consumers for communications in the company to talk to consumers. The key thing is the tone of voice. But interestingly, 39% of Americans want a more serious tone in the brand it usually uses, but 29% say the same tone. So, I think that people want things to be a little bit more serious, but they want brands to be themselves. Acting the way they have always done and talk about how they’re helping their customers and how they’re helping their own staff. 

Dylan Collins: Do you think that’s injecting more empathy into that conversation between brands and customers? Is that another way of proxying it? 

Mark Read: Perhaps, but it can’t be contrived. If you had no empathy before, you can’t suddenly discover empathy, right? You can’t be something that you weren’t before. At the same time, I think brands that are trusted by consumers can go out of their way. I think we were very impressed by what the supermarkets did to provide shopping hours for the vulnerable people and NHS workers here in the UK, but they had to get the execution right.

In the initial days, it didn’t go well because the execution wasn’t right. But when they get the institution right, I think brands do have a role to play. So, I think what people do, and I think there’s a much, much heightened desire for equity and fairness. I was just actually listening to an ABC radio show discussing Amazon price gouging, Prime giving customers preference. I think there’s very little tolerance from the population for things that seem to be unfair. So I think that brands and companies or companies and brands need to treat people fairly, equitably. And I think there is really a sense of us all being in this together and it’s sort of a great leveller. I mean, disease is a great leveller. No one is safe. As we found out from the highest in the country, no one is safe here. We all need to play our part.

Dylan Collins: Yeah. But do you think even before COVID-19, kids were rising as a social power, as a social influence? I mean, Greta Thunberg’s impact on the world was absolutely incredible. Do you feel that all of this is going to elevate, I suppose, the importance of kids in this conversation in sort of what happens in the home? Do you see that as a trend that is happening at the same time?

Mark Read: I mean, certainly the kid is the home chief technology officer. It’s sort of an explosion of House Party app – I hadn’t heard of it three weeks ago. I do think that. But I think we also need to keep kids safe on the internet. And the internet has been a bit of a Wild West. But I think over time… I think about the conversations I’ve had with the platforms that have gone from things like, “Can kids under the age of 13 be on their platform?” Shrugging their shoulders to say, “Well, it’s just one of the things that happens,” to really actually, “You know what? We want to make sure it doesn’t happen. We want to make sure that parents can see what their children are doing.”

Or think about some of the social media around teen issues and rightly, the pressure on platforms to act. So I think we have to make the internet a safe and controlled environment for our children. And then I think in many ways you’re right, children can drive adoption of many sorts of new technologies into the home as well.

Dylan Collins: Yeah. I mean, we’ve seen YouTube make an enormous positive pivot towards kids over the last 12 months or so. They’ve invested into YouTube Kids, they’ve rolled out their made for kids content program for creators and influencers. When you think about the platforms, and you interact with them in so many different ways, do you feel YouTube is sort of at the cutting edge of this? Or do you feel that the technology platforms in general are starting to sort of accept this as a whole and think about compatibility for kids?

Mark Read: I don’t think YouTube is at the cutting edge. I think they have taken their responsibilities seriously. So creating specific apps, designed for kids I think is an important step. I think, maybe they were a little bit late into it, but I think once they got into it, they’ve really embraced it. I’ve seen some of the work they’ve been doing, providing teaching resources to parents trying to teach their children at home. Or Google classroom, which next term may revolutionize education in a way that hasn’t been revolutionized before. So I think that the platforms, and a lot of new technologies, if you think about Snapchat were driven by kids or young adults. Snapchat was, Facebook was in many ways. I’d say Instagram was, TikTok. So they are sort of the early adopters of many of the new platforms.

And some of the new platforms, probably some of the least regulated, they quickly sort of self-regulate themselves. Actually, which is where this conversation is, at the point of which they hit advertising, because our clients are concerned about putting their money into platforms that are safe. And so when the platforms want to get a meaningful share of the advertising dollars, they realize they need to take issues around privacy and content and tracking much, much more seriously. And that then becomes much, much more important.

Dylan Collins: It’s increasingly struck me over the years that the advertising community tends to have a much better grasp of kids and privacy and protection than Silicon Valley in general. Would you agree with that?

Mark Read: Well, I mean, Silicon Valley is based on breaking rules isn’t it? I mean, it exists to disrupt. And it exists to challenge the status quo. And growth and scalability don’t like rules and regulation. As Facebook has found out, content moderation is expensive. And so if you can get away with saying, “Well, oh, we’re just the pipe and we’re not responsible for the content,” then life is much easier. Unfortunately, at some point, particularly if they were advertising funding, they realized they have to be responsible for the content in some way, and have to be responsible for the advertising. And the advertising industry has been wrestling with these issues around marketing to children around fast food, soft drinks, toys, for many years, and what’s appropriate.

And I think we’re steering a careful balance between legitimately telling people what’s out there and promoting it and promoting healthy lifestyles. And I think we all, in bringing up our own children, debate how many times a week or how many times a month are they allowed a cheeseburger. I don’t think that means that… the companies don’t have the ability to advertise, but those are things that our industry has been wrestling with. So, I think we probably have a more innate understanding of it.

Dylan Collins: Well, I’m often fond of suggesting that all technology companies at this point, or certainly ones that have a consumer facing element, should all have a chief children’s officer just so that there’s a dedicated person thinking about this. It’s probably more pertinent now than it ever was.

Mark Read: Yeah, I think that would be a very good idea. I mean, kids are going to be even more on the internet after this than they are before, aren’t they?

Dylan Collins: Absolutely.

Mark Read: They’re going to be more connected. I mean, we bought my daughter her first iPad because she needed it for school. All of a sudden that’s opened up a whole world of communications with her friends that wouldn’t have been possible before. So I think that we’re all going to come out of this situation with kids much, much more connected at a much younger age than it was before. And that’s going to be both an opportunity for businesses and an opportunity for the media platforms, but it’s going to bring with it, as you know, a greater sense of responsibility in making sure the internet is a safe place for children.

Dylan Collins: We’ve obviously seen a huge amount of strides towards that goal with all of the children’s digital privacy laws being rolled out over the last few years, country by country. And I suppose, just taking a segue from that digital privacy point. I mean, we’ve seen a range of initiatives being announced by Google and Microsoft and Rave and various others towards first party data and even sort of true anonymity. Do you feel that this shift to privacy is one of the, not withstanding COVID-19, biggest structural challenges that the advertising industry is going to be facing over the next few years?

Mark Read: No, I don’t think it’s a structural challenge for the advertising industry. I think it’s going to impact parts of the advertising ecosystem in different ways. I think for our clients, how they activate their own data. What’s known as first party data that they collect with their relationship with consumers on the web is going to be more challenging. I think premium publishers and those that have the sort of first party relationship, the Googles, Facebooks, premium newspapers will be in a good position.

I think it’s going to make life more challenging for what I call intermediaries. And in the companies that have relied on kind of hoovering up all the data on the web. And I think that that’s stopping and that’s probably a good thing. So, it’s going to make life harder for some of those intermediary companies, I think, but for us and our clients, I think we’re going to have to continue to market, and we’re going to need to find ways to get the right message to the right consumer at the right time. I’m not particularly concerned about it in that context.

Dylan Collins: And do you hear anything from clients about looking at this trend and really feeling that they need to start investing much more in first party data or indeed, in other parts of the ad tech ecosystem taking it internally? Are there any kind of generalized trends that you can talk about?

Mark Read: I don’t think clients are super concerned. I don’t think they’ve necessarily really worked out how to, what this all means, and what this means for the infrastructure they use for it; for managing their operations.

Dylan Collins: It’s interesting, the kids audience, kids media sectors is essentially the biggest privacy based ad market in the world because of these very specific children’s privacy laws like CAPA and GDPRK and some of the others. I mean, when you think about advertising in the adult world, in the grownup world, do you think that those same types of privacy laws are ever going to be an actual reality? I mean, obviously there’s increasing and protections on data, but do you see a scenario in five or 10 or 20 years where you would see this literal zero data type of enforcement? You think that’s realistic?

Mark Read: Well, I think it’s interesting, isn’t it? The reality is, I think what’s going to happen for all of the internet is a bit like what’s happening for kids. Right? I mean, it might be a little bit less regulated. But effectively, we have to be clear with people, when and why we are collecting their data, and how we use it, and have their permission. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I think the emphasis is going to shift. And actually it’s going to shift a little bit back to the way advertising and marketing used to work i.e. we’re going to use context. So we’ll look at the content that people are looking at, and target advertising based on that.

We’ll know the efficiency and effectiveness of different media in the main, and we’ll be able to frequency cap on messages. So I think that the internet will still be a more efficient platform than traditional media, but I think some of what I describe as the lazy ways of marketing, re-targeting, following you around… There are things that consumers are being followed around the internet for ads. The things you’ve looked at in shopping baskets, some of the lazier things will go away. But many of those sort of tried and tested methods will remain.

Dylan Collins: It’s funny, I mean, it is almost like going back to the first internet in terms of how advertising was working then. Right? Which was almost entirely on a contextual basis.

Mark Read: Yeah. No, exactly. I mean, it’s going to be largely contextual. Right?

Dylan Collins: What is old becomes new again. Mark, you like I, spend a lot of time on planes and traveling around the place.

Mark Read: Yeah, used to.

Dylan Collins: So, I’m sure this has sort of been an adjustment. What have you picked up in terms of work from home tips that you can share with our audience? I think everyone is interested to learn from everyone else on this topic.

Mark Read: Yeah. My main tip, which I failed to do today, I’m sorry, is try and join conference calls two or three minutes early. So that everything can get started on time. I think that it is difficult for people and so giving people, trying to give our people fixed start and stop times, but then being flexible for people to manage their children. Making sure that you have a fixed lunch time. It’s not easy. I think a lot of people are going to be quite looking forward to getting back to working from the office as well. So, we’re all very concerned about sort of mental wellbeing. Particularly because I think this is going to go on for quite some time. I did a call with our people in Italy last week, there are two and a half thousand people, on a Microsoft teams call. It was great to do and I’m doing one later with our people in Spain. I think staying in contact with our people is really important.

The other piece of advice I give people is, think about the six people that sit around you in the office closest to you. Do you try and talk to each of them every day? Because they’re the people that normally rely on you when you’re at work. I think that again is something that we’re encouraging our people to do. But I think this is one of those times where small gestures mean a lot to people and can make a big difference. So, let’s just try and keep in touch.

I think for us, those of us in client services businesses, really being close to our clients, and really understanding and helping our clients navigate their way through this is really important. And I think if we do it properly, we’ll come out with relationships much, much stronger than we came into it before. It’s a real time to test relationships, isn’t it?

Dylan Collins: Agreed. It certainly is. Well, Mark Read, CEO of WPP, thank you very much for joining us on #Kidtech today.

Mark Read: Great. Thanks very much, Dylan. And best of luck with everything in the current environment.

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