New WPP-Scangroup CEO on breaking the hierarchy, leading change

With companies holding back on spending and investors exercising caution in the wake of the recent elections, advertising is one of the sectors that is taking a hit. Marketing is also becoming more automated and the consumer is changing rapidly.

The Business Daily spoke to the new WPP-Scangroup CEO Patricia Ithau on her plans to turn around the media company whose former boss resigned under a cloud of controversy.


It has been six months in your new role, have you settled in?

I have focused the first six months on really trying to understand the business and the people and I have met all 550 plus employees from wherever they work around the continent. I set up little circles where I was talking to every single one and having them ask me anything they wanted to know.

I had to do some symbolic things. We have this thing called making space which is part of a WPP global initiative. We said to our teams that after two years of the pandemic you're back.

We understand people have been stressed, you are coming back here and business is tough and we are going to be driving you for growth. Let's stop, create space to think or go lie down for four days. Everybody, no clients, no nothing, no email you just get a chance to reboot.

What have you learnt from your team through this interaction?

I think it was learning and giving them the confidence to believe that I'm there for them because they didn't believe it. We were a very hierarchical organisation, which shouldn't be the case. Agencies about creativity are about connections so you can't have hierarchy and, and stuff like that.

I think they're still trying to internalise that because it has only been six months. They must be thinking, no, no, no, this may, may be fake, may be she's softening us. So I have to keep doing it and repeating it and being there.

When do you think the honeymoon will be over?

My honeymoon, I think is only going to last this year. I think from next year, I'm not going to have any latitude at all. And I'm very clear about that. Yeah. So I have to figure out quite quickly, what are the things we're going be doing with this business to grow and to drive the top line.

How do you plan to improve performance?

I have done a lot of investments in the last six months so if you look at our P&L you see the expenses have gone up because you have to invest ahead to make sure now we can start to meet those benefits.

When I came, my message was very clear — we are going to be an agency where creativity meets technology to drive transformation into the future.

So I had to start putting money behind those things and then now we start to speak to the clients and get them a little bit ahead of the curve, telling them that this is actually where the future is.

What are some of the areas you have invested in?

We have invested in audience origin, which is research WPP has done globally and has now really refined it for Africa. This constantly doing research digitally to understand where consumers are, and what they are doing. What are the influences? What is happening?

The second thing is, you know, marketing has become a lot more automated, so we built this product called, Optimus. Anonymised because of data protection, but it allows you to understand groups of customers, the way they behave, what are the things they look at? What are they checking on? Then you can develop new products to meet those particular clients.

And then the third is Feed, a real-time social commerce engine which we have worked with using our big clients like EABL and what it allows is to figure out the journey of the customers, where they are and at what point you can do things. You see, that is the future of marketing.

Do you think you can rebound the share prices in the short run?

I want to start changing the public sentiment so that our share price can start to grow. I know the reality is the NSE as we all know that a lot of the money in this market is from external foreign markets and they have stopped investing because we are considered too high-risk as well as the Ukraine issues.

If you look at our P&L and our asset base, we carry a little over Sh3 billion in cash. Our share price should be around Sh10 but we are doing just about Sh3. So there's a gap there in sentiment, which at least I could start to rebuild.

That is no mean feat. We know companies have shelved spending this year, what prospects do you feel you get when you meet CEOs?

I mean, everybody says it is tough, people don't have money, inflation is up, and organisations which need even Forex, for example, to continue to drive their business don't have it.

If you look at media spending up until June, it is six percent down, which is the exact number that we are down in our top line. So a lot of people are recognising that things are tough.

The message I share with a lot of businesses is: when things are tough that's when you figure out how to invest more smartly, not stop investing. If you look historically at any case study of some of the strongest brands or services it is because when the chips were down, they continued to drive that relationship and that engagement with their customer and with their clients, with their consumers.

I tell a lot of clients it's not about you stopping now, be a lot smarter. Because if you stop completely when things come up, the one who was there with your consumer is the one who will be remembered.

We have to talk about your former CEO. With his exit and connections are you concerned he would draw away some of your clients?

Well, you know, the thing is it's such a big world and, there is no acrimony with Bharat [Thakrar]. I think people like to paint the picture that there is one but there is none. He resigned of his own free will. And I think there's so much space for all of us.

You have been in the industry for quite a while, how has it changed over the years?

You know the pace of evolution is much faster. Changes that used to take five, six, seven years now happen in a few months — everything is changing.

First of all, traditional advertising, as it used to be is history. There will still be a constituency that follows and watches traditional TV ads but that is shrinking. Increasingly what you're going to find are the things that convince somebody to move or shift to something in this whole space called content.

Something interesting about content is that anyone just walking around with a camera phone can compete with you. Is this a big concern?

Of course, you can get anybody to be an influencer. Even me, I have got over 2,000 followers, but who follows Patricia? Is it relevant to the thing you're selling? The consistency with which we manage is what becomes more powerful.

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