December 8, 2021

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WPP surges ahead in Q3 2021 but loses British Airways to Uncommon

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WPP CEO Mark Read will have mixed feelings this morning: on the one hand his marcoms empire reports 15.7% organic growth for Q3 2021, ahead of rivals Interpublic, Omnicom and Publicis.

But WPP’s flagship British Airways business, a big integrated account spanning many aspects of the national carrier’s business, has gone to Uncommon Creative Studio.

To add salt to proceedings Uncommon, formed just four years ago, was founded by former Grey execs Nils Leonard, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme (all below.) Grey, now part of AKQA Group, is owned by WPP. Uncommon also takes on BA’s customer experience (CX) account even though its CX operation was only announced a couple of weeks ago.

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This is by far the biggest win in Uncommon’s short life, in prestige terms anyway. But the agency has had a huge impact since its launch, defying the doubters with a number of high profile, highly creative campaigns and winning numerous plaudits including MAA’s Agency of the Year award for 2020.

Across the piece WPP has had a stellar Q3, with revenue growth of 14.7% and 15.7% on its preferred measure of organic growth. All the holding companies did well, advertisers are bouncing back while comparatives with the same Covid-blighted quarter last year are kind.

But WPP has recovered the losses from 2019 and is now set to show real growth this year. Read (below) is forecasting between 11.5 and 12% growth for the year, ahead of its rivals and higher than market expectations of 8-11%.

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Read says: “Clients across all sectors and geographies are making significant investments in marketing, particularly in digital media and commerce services. We are now above 2019 levels in all of our business lines, and with the actions we have taken over the last three years, we are even better positioned for growth.” WPP shares rose 5.46% in early London trading.

On BA, Uncommon pitched against a team team including Ogilvy and Wunderman Thompson in the final round. Omnicom, Interpublic and Havas were involved earlier.

BA director of brand and customer experience Tom Stevens says: “Uncommon is a highly talented, independent agency that impressed us with a strong differentiated creative proposal. At British Airways we always seek out the very best agencies to work with.

“I’d like to thank WPP for the great partnership over the last few years and we are now looking forward to a bright new chapter.”

Read has made great strides in upping WPP’s game in, as he says, commerce and digital media. But he’s also said he wants WPP to be a “creative transformation” company and it clearly has further to go in creative than transformation, which tends to mean CX.

That a still relatively small agency in Uncommon clan trounce the mighty WPP on creative must be a concern. Read has merged his creative agencies to create new entities but in these the digerati are clearly calling the shots, as in VMLY&R and Wunderman Thompson.

WPP recently appointed Rob Reilly from McCann Worldgroup as global CCO but that’s a big ask for one person in a company that employs some 100,000. Grey, the former home of Leonard, Jameson and Graeme is now combined with digital network AKQA. It’s still hard to see how, despite all AKQA’s brilliance, this helps what’s left of Grey. The agency has had a torrid time in the UK since the three broke away in 2017.

Arguably it isn’t more creative “leaders” with fancy titles that holding companies like WPP need but more strength in depth among younger and middle ranking, experienced creatives. WPP, like its peers, has been busily getting rid of the latter for years. Rival Publicis is trying to circumvent this problem in New York with its Le Truc agency collective, which recently won TikTok.

Read, though, permanently under fire from former boss and WPP founder Sir Martin Sorrell, has performed well, at least as far as investors are concerned. Citi analysts called WPP’s Q3 numbers a “blowout” performance although, like others, they’ll be expecting this to continue as the market settles down and tougher comparatives prevail.

WPP and Uncommon?

There may be a further twist in this tale of WPP and BA victor Uncommon. WPP needs to spice up its creative offer (especially at Grey), Uncommon, sooner or later, will have to grow internationally.

Omnicom revived DDB in the UK (and, to an extent, internationally) by buying adam&eve. It ultimately cost Omnicom £110m but it will see that as money well spent. WPP has gone this route before in the Sorrell era, buying Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe to create RKCR/Y&R in the UK and paying top dollar for a half share in Johnny Hornby’s The &Partnership. Read may be considering a welcome home package for Uncommon.

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