July 12, 2022

S2E5 - The Digital Future with Laurent Ezekiel

By Shane Madden and Whit Harwood

Shane and Whit sit down with Laurent Ezekiel, the CMO of WPP, one of the largest agency holding companies in the world, to discuss winning the Coca-Cola business, how to approach a multi-platform world for one of the most respected brands, and what it means to lead a global business into the digitally-native world.

Show Transcript

Shane (00:01):
Hi, all this is Shane Madden.

Wit (00:02):
And I’m Whit Harwood.

Shane (00:03):
We're really excited to be back with season two of Off the Clock, the podcast brought to you by TPT Digital. TPT Digital is the full service vertically integrated digital marketing group of TransPerfect, the $1 billion language services and technology solutions market leader.

Wit (00:17):
We're going to talk to some of the industry’s thought leaders, movers, and decision-makers to discuss all things digital throughout the course of the season. So let's get into it.

Shane (00:25):
Let's go. Hi everyone. Thank you so much for listening in today. This is Shane from Off the Clock.

Whit (00:32):
And I'm Whit.

Shane (00:33):
And today we're super excited to invite Laurent Ezekiel to join the podcast to talk about all things digital. Laurent is an esteemed partner, client, and friend of TransPerfect and has worked with us for many years. And I'm super excited and thrilled to have him on today's pod. So, Laurent, thank you. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Laurent (00:50):
Thank you. Thank you, Shane. Hi, Whit!

Shane (00:52):
Before we jump into this, there's a lot to unpack. Do you mind maybe sharing with the listeners a little bit about yourself, your experience, and we can go from there?

Laurent (01:00):
Absolutely, absolutely. So, thanks for having me today, I’m Laurent Ezekiel. So I'm based in London and the last three years I’ve been the chief marketing and growth officer at WPP. Prior to that, I spent 16 years in some shape or form affiliated with Publicis Groupe. In the last few years, I was the CEO of Digitas and I was actually based out of New York, co-running the North American operation and running the international operation as well from there. So, long time there, then moved over three years ago. And what a ride it’s been for the last few years, which I'm sure we'll get into.

Shane (01:33):
That's right. Quite an illustrious career. So we're pretty happy to have you on today's pod. Again, we really appreciate your time as an industry leader and as a C-level at a major holding company. We’re super excited. I want to unpack a lot of the different executions that you're currently involved in. So why don't we jump into it and start with this: I guess it’s kind of a two-prong question, but firstly, Laurent, what do you think sets WPP apart from the competitors? And then part B of that is, where WPP thinks this whole digital thing is going.

Laurent (02:03):
Well, I think, you know, what's really struck me in my time at WPP has been, first of all, the people. So that was, that's something that I, you know, I've been just blown away by the sort of quality people, the culture, that we have across WPP. I think from a capability perspective, the breadth, depth, and international nature of our company is just frankly outstanding. You know, I think that that is definitely something…there are a lot of big companies out there. There are a lot of companies that have broad capabilities, but when you dig and you look at some of the capabilities we have across design, some of the capabilities we have across PR and experiential, I really genuinely think that when you stitch that together, the magic happens at WPP. So, you know, frankly, putting our scale to work, not scale for scale’s sake, but putting our scale to work for our client, I think can really help set us apart.

Laurent (02:58):
And the other thing I'd say is that we have at WPP a very long history of big investments and focus in technology and data and modern marketing. And I think that, you know, we're maybe bringing some of those a bit more to the fore than we have done. But again, once you are at WPP or a client at WPP, I really think that what you get to work with and what you can see is just that sort of long history of working in that area. In terms of digital, to your question, well, how I grew up, what I did, it's where I grew up. I was the last slide in a presentation for too many years. It's just brilliant to see that change, you know, to be able to be the first slide in a presentation.

Laurent (03:46):
I think at WPP, I know that just before my time, I think there was some notion of battling the word “digital.” It was everywhere. I would say we still use it, but it is everywhere. I mean, our capabilities are, we talk about them as communications, experience, commerce, and technology. And mid-last year we announced our new data company called Choreograph. And so really the word “digital” is across all of those; it's across communications, experience, and Shopper, it's obviously across e-commerce and increasingly so, and then of course, technologies. So for us, it's everywhere. And I think that we really apply that thinking to all the work that we do for our clients.

Shane (04:27):
Yeah, absolutely. So in terms of WPP’s role as the biggest, if not biggest, second biggest, holding company marrying technology with data with creative with communication, what do you think WPP’s role in the ecosystem is and what do you think it will be?

Laurent (04:44):
So I think that the… maybe just taking a step back for the industry at large, there has been in the past years, some narrative sort of stature of holding companies in the marketing communication space. And, you know, I would say that one thing that I take away from the last three years, or maybe two to three years, is that I think that's completely changed. I think that the perception and respect that the industry has for holding companies has grown over the last few years. I think the days of talking about the fact that we may not be in it for the long term are gone. And if anything, I think that our importance in our client relationships has increased. In so much, what I mean by that is that, you know, we've truly become partners to our clients in a broader set of challenges.

Laurent (05:36):
And those broader set of challenges include, you know, your question is about where we fit in the ecosystem, if you like. I think those challenges include more technology, more data, more commerce. And, you know, I think our role in those has increased, you know, as our clients have sought to accelerate what they do in data and commerce and technology, I think they're leaning on us even more so, so I would say that our, you know, respectfully and humbly, I would say that our role in the ecosystem has increased. I think the good news about that is that our client relationships are stronger than ever. I mean the client group at WPP does an incredible job. We track very, very closely and take very seriously our clients’ satisfaction scores. So, we know that year on year, you know, ‘20 to ‘19, ‘21 to ’20, they have increased over those last three years. And, you know, to some extent, I think the pandemic actually got us even closer to our clients. I mean, we had to dive in and help, and they were looking for our support throughout that. So I really think that we've reinforced the role. The positive news for the industry and WPP is that I think we've reinforced our role in that mix.

Whit (06:49):
Laurent, you mentioned that WPP obviously has a long history of being data focused and working with technology specifically, and you even mentioned Choreograph, the data company that you all now have and is an active part. How does data and technology permeate everything that you do on a client level, and how does that even filter in to all of the creative that ultimately gets produced?

Laurent (07:12):
You know, the first thing I’d say on that is that we always bring a data lens to the work that we do now. It's true that quite often our clients have either relationships elsewhere, systems or tools that they use and also varying degrees of first-party data within their organization. So, I would say that, you know, we bring it to the table and everything that we do. You know, we have a fundamental belief with WPP that our clients should own their data. And I think that sets, you know, back to your “sets it apart” question, you know, we truly believe that. I mean, that doesn't mean that we don't think it's important, an important topic. It's a crucial topic, but we fundamentally believe that our clients should and are probably best placed to own their data and manage it in that respect and we will help them manage it.

Laurent (08:06):
So that would be one thing I would say. And, you know, we speak about, rather than IDs, we speak about relationships. I think we speak about, rather than data, we speak about data-driven insights, so insight-driven marketing. So, you know, it’s everywhere effectively in what we do. And, but as I said, there are definitely different degrees of maturity with our clients in terms of what they're doing and what we're doing for them, but it's across everything we do, frankly. And the same on technology. And again, you know, it depends a little bit on our client base, you know. In some cases we're more involved than others. Again, we try and apply that lens and its sort of impossible not to.

Shane (08:44):
So, Laurent speaking of clients, a massive congratulations I believe is in order given the recent news of WPP winning the global Coca-Cola business. So this for me, this is totally eye-opening. I'd love to understand more about, firstly, what the Coke brief was, and then secondly, what your mandate will be to develop their global markets.

Laurent (09:05):
Yeah, sure, sure. Well, thanks for that. And you know, we are absolutely thrilled. We were involved for the best part of last year. So the best part of 2021. I think, taking a step back maybe before we talk about your question, a little bit about the process, but I think Coca-Cola Company going through, well, they're going through a huge transformation. They publicly have set out to simplify their business and they went through a transformation themselves actually, in fact, through the beginning of ‘21, even. And for example, you know, they moved from over 400 brands around the world to less than 200 brands. So really reducing that long tail of brands. They moved from, I think, 19 regions to nine regions and they moved to increase their focus on integrated marketing and, you know, they’re public these days as well to be doubling down their marketing spend over the coming years, actually, you know, as we come out of COVID.

Laurent (10:01):
So you know, they have been through, they are going through and have been through huge transformation themselves. I think they then set out to relook at their partnerships. And as you say, there was a pitch last year. Interestingly, the beginning of that pitch, it was a creative pitch and a media pitch, and they were sort of running in parallel. The approach we took was to integrate from day one, and a few months into the process that integration was formalized in the sense that it became an integrated pitch, a fully integrated pitch. So midway through last year. And I feel like we had good momentum on the basis that we were very integrated from the beginning. And you know, what I will say about the process and the decision is I think it's incredibly bold and game changing and credit to James Quincy and Manolo Arroyo, who's the chief marketing officer, really for having the ambition to appoint a single partner, effectively, a single majority marketing partner. You know, for me, it's just such a bold decision. And if you think about the journey they're on, a journey of simplification, focusing on the work, moving from ideas to experiences, moving from, you know, slower decision-making to collapsed decision-making, you know. In many respects, the decision makes sense to sort of streamline with one single partner. But yeah, it was quite the year. I'm happy to talk a bit more about it.

Shane (11:32):
Yeah. So you touched on something there: experiences, right? So on the podcast, we've been talking about this a lot, which is, experiences are the new social currency, and it's interesting that you bring up experiences. So are you able to divulge or disclose what you're bringing to the table that's cutting edge, whether it be through experiential marketing or.... Would love to learn anything that you can share on that.

Laurent  (11:53):
I think what I can share is that, again, given the decision and given where we're at given the strategic partnership we have, it's really incumbent on us, and by us I really mean WPP and the Coca-Cola Company, to deliver integrated marketing, which probably sounds a little bit obvious. The fact that we are in a position to do that now, right. There is experience work, creative work, media, data, technology, PR, design, and technology is a huge component of that. I think given that we have all those capabilities at WPP, given that Coca-Cola Company have engaged with us across those capabilities, you know, we are putting together an integrated marketing planning process to make sure that we truly deliver on each of those, for everything that we put out, for every creative charter as we call it, that we put out. So that would be what I would share. It's early days for us still. We were appointed on the 8th of November. The media transition was first, you know, we've just hit March.

Laurent (12:58):
So we're really getting going, but the start's been amazing, you know. We've put some work out already. I mean, some public work, for instance the work we did for Chinese New Year, which is a very rounded experience, you know. There is an NFT component, there is a data collection component through QR, and there's a film. But it really is a rounded experience, the work we put out there. So I'd cite that as one example, but there are many more coming and we'll be able to share next time we speak.

Whit (13:26):
Oh, we definitely look forward to that, Laurent. And so, when you're putting together a pitch like that for Coke, but also when you're working across all of your partners, I imagine what you're really thinking about is, what is the future of consumption and how will consumers end up interacting with a brand or a client, not just next month, but three, five years from now? How do you see consumption evolving and and how do you see user habits evolving over the next one, three, five years?

Laurent (13:55):
You know, one of the premises of the partnership we have is that, first of all, you know, to your point on consumers, I think the fundamental belief that we have, and we've called the partnership Open X, I mean, it opened because we've opened up the whole WPP at Coca-Cola Company, but it's also open because that planning process I described earlier embraces partners, right? So I think the fundamental premise of the partnership is that if we're going to look to grow new consumers, we need to embrace partners and those partners can be big, they can be small, can be some of the platforms that we know very well. And I think that would be one thing I think, embracing the partners in order to reach the sort of goal that we have is number one. The second of course, is that given the types of consumers that we want to be engaging with and gaming and music play an increasingly prominent role.

Laurent (14:48):
And you have seen the real magic work that was put out towards the back end of last year, now to get a very strong gaming component, we engage gamers. And I think you're going to see a lot more of that as we move forward, basically. In terms of habits and consumption, you know, I think there's a huge loyalty opportunity across the Coca-Cola Company. And it's just going to look different depending on the brand. But I think if we can have a sort of consistent approach to loyalty, but, you know, I'd call out gaming and music, because there's two areas to really double down on.

Shane (15:18):
So, on that note, Coca-Cola probably one of the strongest brands in the world, most brand equity, mature organization, digitally mature. Do you think the framework that that presents allows you to, you know, penetrate these new channels, like gaming, music, social experiences? I guess, let me ask you another way. If you were working with a partner or a client that was less mature, digitally or otherwise, would you put forth those kinds of innovative ideas or is it case by case? And because again, Coca-Cola is so mature, you have the ability to do that.

Laurent (15:53):
I think they are mature and we have the bid to do that. The other thing I would say is that, you know, what an opportunity. We have 2 billion moments a day that we could interact with Coca-Cola Company consumers around the world. So, you know, I would say that, on the one hand, it's the maturity that helps. On the other hand, the opportunity is still huge in that respect. If you think about that, you know, think about those moments. It's sort of an incredible gold mine of data, but we have to treat it as not just data. We have to treat it as relationships and, you know, to the question, a new way of consumption habit. It's more getting into that psyche. So, I think it's both. 

Shane (16:33):
Have they, as part of the mandate, have they said to you, look WPP, we need help generating loyalty and sales or is it kind of a, that could be too myopic? Is it just broad? Like here's the global goal, go get it. Like, have they been, you know, relatively kind of specific in terms of what they're trying to achieve? 

Laurent (16:52):
I would say I would take a step back or even two or three steps back and, you know, fundamentally, we want to create something, a model and a partnership that's never been done before. So, you know, I think it's not just about data or loyalty, it's going to always be about creativity. I think fundamentally we are building something together that will advance the industry and, you know, it will get Coca-Cola Company to be not just best in class, but gain top spot as marketers. So I think that's the ambition and you know, that is no exaggeration. That's what we're building with them. And you know, we're privileged to be able to do that.

Shane (17:41):
Yeah. It's pretty exciting. What a mandate, what an interesting development. Yeah. So last question; we got 20 minutes of your valuable time. So, given the size of this opportunity, the size of the brief, the opportunity to develop the program, bring them into the next era, what scares you about a program or a client like this? Just the sheer scale of it? Like what, what are the things that keep you up at night?

Laurent (18:08):
I think we have to, well, a lot of things I think. I think the fact that we're…what scares me is, you know, everyone's in a hurry. But I just think that we have to, we have to approach this. This is a big change, a cultural change as well for everyone. So, you know, what scares me is we're not able to communicate that properly. And yeah, we just have to be ambitious, move fast, be agile, but at the same time, you know, some of these things are going to take a little bit of time. So, you know, I think that there's a lot of work ahead, but you know, we obviously ought to have the opportunity to deliver on that work and, you know, we want to deliver. That keeps me up at night. We absolutely want to deliver on the ambition. You know, the ambition was co-set, but the ambition in the end, the decision was Coca-Cola Company's decision. So we really want to deliver on that. I would say that that absolutely keeps me up. Yeah.

Shane (19:06):
I can understand; it’s that old adage of move fast and break things, but at the same time, you need to bring an entire organization with you on that journey.

Laurent (19:15):
Absolutely. And the cultural, I can't understate, overstate, sorry, the cultural element of that, you know, I think it's hugely important. And you know, there are a lot of people at Coca-Cola Company, a lot of people. Everyone needs to sort of get on the same page as to what we're building together. So that's a little bit of a journey.

Shane  (19:34):
Well, that's amazing. Laurent, we really appreciate your time. Chief marketing officer of WPP. We've got 20 minutes of the brightest and best mind in the industry. Obviously, on the back of that Coca-Cola win, it's a timely opportunity to have this conversation on the podcast. So thank you so much for your time. And we wish you all the very best of luck with the development of that Coca-Cola program. So I appreciate it. Thank you.

Laurent (19:55):
Thanks to you both for having me. Thanks very much. Thank you.