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Karen Blackett exits WPP on a high

Karen Blackett exits WPP on a high

It was one of those balmy early summer evenings, with the sun shimmering across the River Thames and bouncing off the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, when the industry gathered last week for a leaving party like no other.

Admiring the views from panoramic windows at the top of Sea Containers was a friendly crowd of client-side marketers, WPP executives, advertising industry ambassadors and Karen Blackett OBE.

After 29 years with the marketing group, this was Blackett’s final stand as UK president of WPP. Claudine Collins, chief client officer at EssenceMediaCom UK, opened proceedings.

“I have worked and been friends with Karen for over 30 years,” Collins tells me later. “We’ve laughed a lot in our time together and anyone who knows Karen knows how infectious her laugh is.

“Karen has such immense charisma and has always made a huge, lasting impression on everyone she’s worked with. She’s literally changed people’s lives and has left an enormous legacy at WPP.”

Claudine Collins
Collins began the speeches at Blackett’s leaving party

 

In his speech, Mark Read, CEO of WPP, noted wryly how there can be lots of superlatives used in the industry, “but in Karen’s case they really are justified”. Read praised her for being “so fantastic with clients”, from Coca-Cola to Tesco to Google, and admitted Blackett’s ever-growing list of achievements “make us all feel slightly inadequate”.

Next, Nick Lawson, global CEO of EssenceMediacom, recalled some eventful moments with Blackett in the early years, together building what became the biggest media agency in the UK, including one pitch that resulted in a dress being bought en route.

“Everyone in the room wants to be Karen,” said Lawson, who called her “the most competitive person I know”. But while others would feel the pressure, Blackett’s ability to always be true to her roots meant she wore it lightly.

“We all set out to change the world,” Lawson said to Blackett. “But you’ve well and truly done that. You’ve proved how businesses that are more diverse are more creative and successful.”

Time to get off the bus

Things have moved fast for 52-year-old Blackett since she received an OBE for services to media and communications in 2014. At the time, Blackett had already launched the first government-backed apprenticeship scheme for the creative industry and helped to increase MediaCom’s black and minority-ethnic representation from 12% to 19%.

But she had remained resolutely committed to WPP, telling me in her first interview after receiving the OBE: “I don’t feel like I’ve done enough yet.”

Fast forward 10 years and Blackett is, as ever, straight to the point: “Well, now I’m done,” she tells me. “Honestly, I think I’ve done all I can do [at WPP]. It’s on to someone else to take the baton.”

It’s a stark admission, but having held five senior leadership roles since 2014 — moving from CEO to chairwoman of MediaCom, then becoming the first UK country manager for WPP before being named UK CEO of buying arm GroupM, and most recently as president of WPP UK — no-one can say she hasn’t seen all sides.

As UK president, Blackett has been responsible for 12,000 people and revenue in excess of £2bn. Tasked with simplifying operations, integrating services for clients and creating a more streamlined approach, the famous team-builder has had to draw on all her experience and renowned people skills to forge greater collaboration.

WPP’s UK operation has reported solid growth during her tenure, with revenue rising 5.6% in 2023 and 7.6% in 2022, although not enough to revive the wider group’s lacklustre trading performance.

“I’d been feeling as though it was time to get off the bus for a while,” Blackett confides. “I couldn’t see myself doing Mark’s role.”

She later expanded on EssenceMediacom’s own podcast: “MediaCom and WPP have been my home and I’m never going to work somewhere as long again. But it gets to a point where I think you’ve done everything that you feel you have done.

“You can move into different roles, you can go into different markets, but it would be the same challenges. And so it really is time to go outside to see if the skills that I think I have learned, I can put into practice outside [of the group].”

Karen Blackett Mark Read Nick Lawson
Left to right: Blackett with Read and Lawson

 

Diversity an ongoing challenge

Whether Blackett remains in the industry is yet to be seen. Increasingly politically minded, she has expressed frustrations at the speed of change when it comes to championing diversity of thought and celebrating difference as a way to create dynamic, creative workplaces.

“I do think we saw, especially after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, more people getting with the programme about diversity,” she explains. “Realising it’s not an altruistic thing to do, but something that affects your bottom line. Diversity is part of the solution.

“You saw more people coming into the industry, you saw more people progressing in the industry. My genuine worry now is that the momentum gets lost as the industry takes on another pivot with the focus on AI and how AI is going to transform the industry — which it absolutely will.

“Culturally, not just in the UK but globally, with ever more divided and divisive societies, I worry that our relentless pursuit of AI will result in the deprioritisation of diversity of thought — and at the expense of amazing, talented people.”

There’s evidence to support concerns about a rollback on diversity efforts in the industry. The last Advertising Association All In Census in 2023 highlighted that the work environment for black talent remains comparatively negative, resulting in poor retention and impairing progression. Just 2% of black respondents were in C-suite positions and 31% of black respondents reported that they felt undervalued compared with colleagues of equal competence.

Agency data from the IPA, released in January, confirmed slight declines in the level of ethnic diversity at both agencies (23.3%) and executive management level (11%).

Matt Foster, director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Ogilvy UK, has worked closely with Blackett as part of WPP’s UK Inclusion Council, and credits her with being the “driving force behind so much of the change we’ve seen across the network”.

Foster adds: “Yes, gaps remain, but her work has meant that we continue to invest and prioritise DEI and attract and retain more underrepresented talent into our industry. More than anything though, it is Karen’s approachability and kindness that I always found the most remarkable. Speaking with her felt like receiving a warm hug and that was always so edifying.”

Avengers Assemble

Blackett is not alone in celebrating the strength of diverse teams. As football fans brace themselves for Euro 2024, among the advisors of England manager Gareth Southgate is former-Olympian-turned-author Matthew Syed, who has applied the theory to the field of high performance.

In his book Rebel Thinking, Syed provides a compelling case for the power of cognitive diversity to better tackle the greatest challenges of our age, from climate change to terrorism.

Part of the reason is due to what scientists call cognitive elaboration — the process of sharing, challenging and expanding our thinking. Diverse teams compel each other to think more deeply and interrogate more objectively. So, when employees speak up and share diverse inputs, they help see things from new angles and, in turn, generate more creative, innovative solutions.

Such data-led insights support Blackett’s own instincts: “When I joined the industry, there really weren’t that many people in senior roles that looked like me. I think when you create a culture where people from whatever background and whatever walk of life can contribute, thrive and be part of a winning team, that’s where real success lies.

“I talk about an Avengers Assemble-type approach a lot, because I honestly believe that everybody has a superhero power and, as a manager and leader, it’s your job to help find it and nourish it so that they can absolutely fly.”

Business champion

Outside WPP, Blackett has continued to make her mark as a person of significant influence, becoming the first businesswoman to top the Powerlist of the most influential black people in Britain, leading the UK’s EMpower and HERoes rankings, featuring in Vogue’s 25 Most Influential Women in Britain and being appointed chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. Her non-executive director roles include Diageo and Creative UK.

I last interviewed Blackett for the Department for International Trade (now Department for Business and Trade) in 2018, when she was an ambassador for UK creative businesses overseas. That same year, she was appointed by prime minister Theresa May as the UK’s Race Equality Business Champion and the following year became a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office.

This month, Blackett added another accolade, having been awarded Freedom of the City of London. “So if you need to take a sheep across the City of London, I’m your woman,” she jokes.

Blackett has been a founding trustee of the Black Equity Organisation, an independent charity and civil rights organisation, since its inception in 2022 and is passionate about advancing justice and equity for black people in the UK.

Pointing to the fact that there is not one FTSE 100 CEO who is black, Blackett says: “There’s still something wrong here. I do think there are some structural systemic issues that prevent black people from living their very best lives. Yes, comparative to other markets, things can be better, but I still think there’s issues here and I don’t like this rhetoric from our current government that believes that there isn’t a problem.”

This month’s announcement of a general election in July has also clearly stirred Blackett. Although she prefers to keep her cards close to her chest, you get the feeling that perhaps during the six-week campaign she will not be batting for the status quo.

Life after WPP

Few will be surprised that Blackett has been “overwhelmed” with non-executive director roles, and some potential chairwoman opportunities, since her pending exit was announced in February. But I get the sense that there’s at least one more full-time “head coach” position to come.

She refuses to be drawn on what the future holds, except to say she’ll be focusing on an extended summer holiday with her son Isaac, before adding intriguingly: “There’ll be more news to come in January.”

The first three people to contact her after news of her departure broke were all former WPP employees: Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP and now CEO of S4 Capital; John Rogers, former chief financial officer; and Stephen Allen, former chairman and CEO of MediaCom and now executive chairman at Brainlabs.

Sorrell admits to being “amazed” that WPP has let her go, praising Blackett for being an “extremely successful and effective advertising and media executive and mum”, adding: “She broke through the glass ceiling at WPP and overcame all obstacles. Karen will continue to surf big waves in our industry and beyond.”

At Blackett’s leaving party, Steve Hatch, CEO of YouGov and former vice-president for Northern Europe at Meta, told me: “I’ve no doubt in 10 years’ time, when we see the future leaders in WPP and beyond, many of them will cite their time working with Karen as the defining experience that set them on a path to leadership. She’s one of the few who has genuinely changed the industry.”

Such comments are testament to how highly regarded Blackett is among senior leaders, past and present. It’s a rare ability to be able to collect so many vocal allies on the way to the top and it has created an enviable network that will serve her well in her next chapter.

After the speeches, with the sun going down on Sea Containers, Blackett and friends turned up the volume to the sounds of DJ Roxx and danced the night away.


Arif Durrani is global content director of Reuters Plus content studio. He is also an international media consultant and freelance writer. @DurraniMix

Kathryn Colas, Founder, Kathryn Colas Academy (menopause training for every workplace), on 30 May 2024
“A wonderful piece of writing. It’s what we (women) all want to hear and read about; a successful career allowing the development for the obvious benefits of diversity.”

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