Karen Blackett
Karen Blackett
A view from Karen Blackett

What I learned in my first year of leading Group M during Covid

“Advertising has a huge cultural influence and we can use this influence for good,” UK boss of WPP and Group M says.

We are marking two anniversaries – one of which is personal to me and one which has impacted everybody in the country.

The personal anniversary is that at the beginning of April last year, I took over a new role as CEO of Group M UK (alongside my existing role as UK country manager of WPP).

You do not need me to tell you that the other anniversary was the arrival of the first lockdown.

It was an extraordinary, life-changing moment for everyone. (And a challenging time to take on a new role, to say the least.)

I want to take this opportunity to look back over the past 12 months.

I'm not going to be able to get through this article without using the word 'unprecedented' so let's get it out of the way right now: this has been a year of unprecedented change in the advertising, media and marketing industry – as indeed it has in each of the sectors in which our clients operate.

After 12 revolutionary months, this seems like a good moment to take stock and pick out the key changes and trends.

Improved relationships with clients

From my perspective, one of the most significant and welcome changes was the improved relationship between media agencies and clients.

Based both on hard data – Vantage scores – and on many client comments, we can see improvements in client satisfaction across our media agencies.

There was an initial peak in Q2 of 2020 – as agencies and clients threw themselves into the personal challenges of WFH and the business challenges of a completely transformed world, the true value of the partnership was revealed.

As so many clients needed to change their plans dramatically and instantly, the value of Group M’s deep relationships with media owners was also revealed as we were able to work together to allow advertisers to rethink and reimagine their plans and execute their new strategies with hardly any notice.

From all parties we saw exceptional speed of response, an ability to deal with high-pressure situations, and high degrees of both flexibility and empathy. We talk a lot about partnership in this industry. The past 12 months have shown us what it truly looks like.

Value – and the move towards outcomes

It’s not true, however, to say that everything changed. Some things stayed the same. We still had to get the basics right: delivering value and effectiveness.

In a highly audited world, we continue to do that. But the way we deliver value and effectiveness is certainly changing.

As the past 12 months led to a massive shift towards ecommerce, they also moved us closer to the world that both advertisers and agencies would like to see – one where our work is measured by the business outcomes it delivers.

This has always been where the real value of the work we do lies, but it has not been easy to measure in the past, and so we have more usually been actually measured by the media value we deliver.

We, naturally, always make our strategic and executional proposals in order to achieve the best outcome for our clients.

As the world continues to move towards ecommerce, clients will be able to see the link more clearly and will have even greater confidence in selecting the products and services we offer, knowing that their effectiveness can be proved.

A focus on inequities – and a move towards greater fairness

Anyone with a knowledge of history will know that after major global crises there is a focus on social inequities. This happened after both World Wars.

And it has happened again, following the arrival of this pandemic. Covid itself has highlighted the many varieties of inequality and inequity within our society.

And shortly after the start of the pandemic came the horrific, globally witnessed, murder of George Floyd – throwing an even bigger spotlight on just how extreme this unfairness and prejudice can be, on how broken and divided our world has become, and on the tragic consequences if we allow it to continue.

Everyone has a role to play in building a kinder, fairer, more equal world, and the advertising industry is no exception.

As the UK market leader, Group M takes this duty extremely seriously and our vision is to be responsible for shaping the next era of media where advertising works better for people.

Yes, the work we do has to deliver our client’s objectives, but it also has to deliver something for society as a whole.

Advertising has a huge cultural influence and we can use this influence for good.

There are more and more companies and individuals trying to do this; and the industry as a whole is making a concerted effort.

For example, as part of WPP, Group M signed up to the Advertising Association’s All In census, which took place earlier this month and whose findings will give us a clear indication of the current demographic state of the industry.

Run jointly by the AA, ISBA and the IPA, All In can provide the basis for an action plan to move the whole industry towards greater inclusivity.

Meanwhile, we are working with several partners to diversify our talent pipeline, including Rare Recruitment, Brixton Finishing School and the Uninvisibility Project.

We have adjusted our degree requirement for entry-level applicants, so we can look at expertise in new ways.

I have been preaching the benefits of greater diversity and inclusion for many years. Over the past year, many new voices have joined in the call for change.

Let’s hope everyone commits to walking the walk as well as talking the talk.


Another area where our industry can improve is sustainability. There are welcome signs that progress is being made in this area with a focus beyond simply reducing our own carbon footprints, and an understanding that we must also think more holistically about the campaigns we create for our clients and the impact that they have on the planet.

We have created a co-ordinated programme, Mission Zero, to place sustainability at the heart of the operations, strategy and outputs of our agencies and specialist businesses.

At the same time, we are working to reduce the carbon footprint of the campaigns that we plan and buy.

Two tools to help do this are being shared with the entire industry: The Carbon Calculator, developed in MediaCom, and Change The Brief, developed by Mindshare, equip any agency to respond to (and challenge) client briefs in order to promote more sustainable outcomes. We have chosen to share these with everyone because we believe this is an area where we must all seek to do the most possible good, rather than seek competitive advantage.

(For those who know me, don’t worry – I remain fiercely competitive in other areas!)

Meanwhile Group M is represented on the steering group of Ad Net Zero, which aims to galvanise the industry to achieve real net zero carbon emissions from the development, production and placement of campaigns by the end of 2030.

Rebuilding trust in advertising

If, working together, we can hold true to a vision of a more diverse, inclusive and sustainable advertising and media industry, then as well as achieving necessary and positive change in our companies and beyond, we can also help to rebuild trust in advertising.

We know that this has fallen to low levels and we cannot allow this to continue.

We need to combine some of the activities outlined above with a renewed focus on how we use data and technology to ensure both less bombardment for consumers and less wastage for our clients.

In this way, we can make people’s experience of advertising better, and improve their perception of the industry.

Changing the world by changing the world immediately around us

It is difficult to talk about silver linings after such a very difficult year. But we must all hope that the world we rebuild will be kinder and fairer.

In many areas I believe we are looking at win-win solutions. Moving towards greater diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do; it will also help drive our businesses forward as we reap the benefits of diversity of thought and innovative new ideas.

Sustainable behaviour will improve our relationships with consumers as it also helps to heal the planet.

We can drive progress as an industry, we can drive progress at a group or company level, and we can drive change individually.

Each of us can help to make things better. It doesn’t matter what your role is. We each change the world by changing the world immediately around us.

And, in turn, advertising and media can make a positive impact in the world.

Karen Blackett is UK country manager of WPP and UK chief executive of Group M