It’s been a year since WPP announced it was appointing its first chief marketing and growth officer as part of an overarching strategy to sell the company’s new vision and have a clearer brand proposition under chief executive Mark Read.
Laurent Ezekiel, with 16 years of experience as a business transformation and global client leader at Publicis Groupe, was brought in to execute a global marketing plan around WPP’s new "creative transformation" vision.
Naturally, much of his work since has focused on a global new-business growth strategy around simplified offerings to clients in the areas of media and communications, brand experience, technology and commerce.
But what’s less known about Ezekiel is how fixed he may be on tying WPP’s future business growth to sustainability.
"It’s something close to me, something close to the management team," Ezekiel says. "So I’m super-passionate about it."
In his university days in the 1990s, Ezekiel majored in geography for his undergraduate degree at King’s College, followed by a masters in sustainable development at SOAS University of London. Even now, he seems eager and willing to dive back into his old thesis conversations around creating more sustainable villages in Uttar Pradesh, India.
When he arrived at WPP, Ezekiel says he was impressed by work that had already been done around clear sustainable goals that included targets in response to climate change.
According to WPP’s most recent sustainability report in 2018, the holding company has already committed to the following goals listed below.
Sustainability goals are nothing new to large corporations – all the holding groups have them and accurate comparisons aren’t always easy, but some commitments are similar. In 2018, WPP claimed 30% of its electricity came from renewable sources; Publicis claimed 33.5%, while Omnicom reported 10.6%. All would agree they still have considerable work to do to hit their goals.
But on some measures, WPP does seem to making progress, such as the amount of floor space certified to green building standards – this was 21% in 2018 but continues to rise, with the roll-out of WPP’s new campus strategy worldwide.
While not all WPP campuses have turned out exactly as planned, the holding company’s development plans have been incredibly ambitious, with new co-locations announced or opened this year in Detroit, Düsseldorf, Gurugram, Madrid, Manchester, Mumbai, Paris and San Francisco. Most of them include rooftop gardens or greenspaces, or target ambitious sustainable buildings targets such as "LEED gold" or "BREEAM excellent" rating.
"I think by 2021 we will have 64,000 people in campuses around the world, and that will only continue to grow," Ezekiel says. "Those are green buildings so that’s very important in terms of environmental impact."
Sustainable client work
It’s part of Ezekiel’s job, of course, to make sure the world hears about WPP’s green buildings and environmental pledges, such as its commitment to end single-use plastics throughout its 3,000 premises by 2020.
But in his ideal world, WPP’s sustainability and client business growth goals would merge – and this is the direction that excites him most.
"If you talk to our client leaders – and we did this – 80% of them have engaged in active sustainability conversations with their clients. I think half of those conversations resulted in briefs and campaigns they've actually worked on. So it's very prominent across our current client base," Ezekiel says.
WPP estimates about 10-13% of client work currently is tied to sustainability and expects that percentage to only grow.
"I also feel that we should have that conversation with every new business client, it should be represented in pitches. I think that's very important, so it's not something you tag on but it's something that you start with," Ezekiel adds.
A step in that direction was undertaken back in November during Mindshare’s annual day to give back to the community. Its #ChangeTheBrief initiative encouraged employees to rethink their client briefs to come up with sustainable alternatives to traditional marketing strategies for their actual clients like Unilever.
One scenario involved producing both a "now" brief and a "future" brief to clients, the latter of which would offer brand ideas aimed at changing long-term behaviour, such as eco-friendly food packaging that encourages easy freezing and less food waste.
While such one-day exercises have value, a more institutionalised approach could see agencies regularly pitch clients a set of creative solutions in response to a brief at one price, then also a second alternative, more sustainable way to fulfil the brief at another.
So would WPP consider making this common practice?
"That's my goal," Ezekiel says. "I would always have it included," though recognising that some briefs are purely prescriptive and some clients will be more receptive than others.
These days, however, it’s a rare client that isn’t trying to improve its own environmental record or help enable its customers to do the same. Sustainability at scale is all about mass behaviour modification and this is an area that the marketing communications industry has making into a science for decades.
"We put out one in five messages in the world," Ezekiel says. "I did [my] sustainability degrees to help save the world. I then came into this industry, I think it has the power to change the world too. It's that powerful in that respect. I really, really believe that."