WPP's CEO Mark Read: When the hype around AI declines, that's when we still need to invest

WPP could double the size of the business in India in the next five years, said CEO Mark Read, as he shared his views on AI, the hype around the technology, AI's impact in elections and elections' impact on advertising. In an interview with Storyboard18, Read also spoke about India on the global stage: "India is the world's most populous country, the world's fifth biggest economy, heading to be the world's third biggest economy. In a time of some turmoil in global relations, it is great to see India taking a lead."

By  Shibani GharatSep 16, 2023 10:56 AM
WPP's CEO Mark Read: When the hype around AI declines, that's when we still need to invest
Mark Read, CEO, WPP, says, "AI is fundamental to WPP’s business in the future and it has been in some ways for some years in our media business and in our production business. What's changed with generative AI, we've seen the ability for computers to do things that we thought only humans could do. Produce images, take photos, create videos, write copy and poems - all of those things that our creative people do."

For the past eight months, generative artificial intelligence has dominated the advertising landscape. Every ad holding company is bolstering its AI capabilities and so is WPP, the world’s largest advertising group. Earlier this year WPP announced a partnership with US chipmaker Nvidia to use generative artificial intelligence in the production of advertising at scale for its clients. In 2021 WPP acquired Satalia, a technology company with expertise in AI and then made the company’s founder Daniel Hulme the global chief AI officer.

As WPP ups its AI game plan, CEO Mark Read feels business leaders need to get into the details when it comes to the use of AI. He also suggests that the upcoming elections in India and the US will be interesting to watch especially with the rapid democratisation of technology. In a Storyboard18 TV exclusive interview, Read also shares the company's plans for training talent and upskilling for an AI age.

Edited excerpts.

WPP is strengthening its AI capabilities. You entered into a partnership with Nvidia. You acquired Satalia in 2021. When I met your Chief AI Officer Daniel Hulme last month, he spoke about your foresight when it comes to AI. Tell us more about your plans?

AI is fundamental to WPP’s business in the future and it has been in some ways for some years in our media business and in our production business. What's changed with generative AI, we've seen the ability for computers to do things that we thought only humans could do. Produce images, take photos, create videos, write copy and poems - all of those things that our creative people do. What excites our creative people is its ability now to bring their ideas to life, much more quickly. I don’t think it is going to eliminate creativity or creative judgment. It is going to make those things even more important.

The Nvidia partnership is a really good example. The Hollywood studio has used Nvidia for a long time. The Mandalorian is really created using the technology but no one's really applied it to the advertising industry in that skill. So that's what we're doing, to enable our clients to create virtual sets in which their products, whether it be a car or a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, can come to life. We can create content for clients much more cheaply than we ever could for using technology. That enables us to create the plethora of content that clients are going to need in the future to populate the channels where they want to reach consumers.

Do you think business leaders need better training and orientation when it comes to working with AI tools?

I would say that business leaders need to get into the details. I'm currently having a weekly meeting with our AI team on the strategy - what are we doing, where are we investing, what are the blockages, how can I help us move more quickly, etc. There is a little bit of AI hype, but I think that when the hype declines, that's when we need to invest. Because consistency in investment in this area is what's going to be important. When people say about technology that the impact is much more fundamental, but it always takes longer to happen. It will take maybe longer than people expect, but it will be much more fundamental. What's important to WPP is a consistent investment approach, really understanding at a granular level how it impacts our business. That's at the heart of any success.

If your organization wants to get involved in something new or exciting, leverage its incredible capabilities, how do you pivot towards that? How do you convince internal stakeholders and get the whole organisation on the same page?

It's a little bit of judgment. It's a little bit of personal experience. It's a little bit of listening to the experts. If you compare the Metaverse and AI, two of the last few years sort of hype topics, my personal view is that AI will be much more fundamental than the Metaverse to how we think. AI will enable parts of the Metaverse.

And do you get the whole organization on board?

Well, the good thing about WPP is that there's no lack of excitement. Everyone is channelling in one direction. Everyone wants to use this technology, embrace it. The interesting thing is how democratized the technology has become. Because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the likes of Google and Microsoft and Open AI and others are investing in this technology. It is available at a very low cost. We can use hundreds of billions of dollars of investment to generate new products. So, it is actually a really interesting time where big companies and small companies have democratized access to AI.

Can you share a bit more on specific training programs, policies, or plans that you have in place for skilling existing talent within WPP for AI?

We run a diploma in AI at Oxford University, actually. CVL Srinivas, Indian Country Manager or president at WPP in India, attended it and that was really around the big picture. We started that two years ago.

At the same time, we run this creative technologies program where we bring young people into the business - people who are just leaving school or many people who haven't been to university, sort of creative apprentices and we get them to use the technology to solve creative problems. That's also really fun because they bring a different perspective. There is a great piece of work they did for L'Oreal where they used some of the image creation tools to create images around perfume advertising to capture the meaning of scents using language and imagery together.

We have the general elections coming up in the year 2024. What are the things that will be game-changers?

I'm not a political expert, but I think that we'll see much greater use of social media and new communication techniques in all of the elections in the US and here in India. There are some things we need to watch out for, like how AI is being used. People, I think, legitimately have some concerns about that. So I think the elections are always sort of fraught times in many ways, but also bring a sort of renaissance in the economy. So it'll be an interesting few months.

Elections are generally good for the advertising industry and the business. So what are your expectations as far as business is concerned?

The politicians like to see the economy doing well in an election year. That's probably the best way to say it, although in the US, because of the amount of money that political parties invest, advertising does tend to push up prices, which can be helpful to the economy. But I don't think that's the major thing. I think it is a time of great political uncertainty. We see that in many countries, certainly in the US. It's an election that is too uncertain to see what would happen. There are many different versions of the future depending on how it unfolds.

First Published on Sep 13, 2023 7:07 AM

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