Karen Blackett repositions senior leaders and buyers in Group M UK shake-up

Group M is creating five 'squads' to simplify and improve access to the WPP media division.

Group M (clockwise from top-left): Blackett, Rowlinson, Humphreys, Bornman, Willis and Collins
Group M (clockwise from top-left): Blackett, Rowlinson, Humphreys, Bornman, Willis and Collins

Group M, Britain's biggest media buyer, is reshuffling its senior UK team as part of a restructure designed to make it simpler for clients to access its media services.

The move comes seven months in to the tenure of Karen Blackett, since she added the role of UK chief executive of Group M to her existing role as country manager of WPP, and follows an “extensive research piece” in which Group M employees, clients and third parties were consulted about its strategic priorities. 

The result is five new "squads": customer engagement and growth; products and services; transformation and integration; finance and business operations; and media investment management. 

Group M described it as a "new future-fit and client-centric operating structure" that will "enable greater collaboration across the group".

Niel Bornman, currently global chief technology officer – data, product and AI at WPP,  will move to Group M UK in January to lead the products and services squad and become chief product and services officer. 

His primary focus will be building on Group M’s track record of specialist solutions across outcome-driven media, such as Xaxis, while creating new opportunities in data and content across the group. 

Lisa Humphreys, currently WPP UK strategy development director, will take up a dual role leading the transformation and integration squad as chief transformation and integration officer, alongside her current WPP role.

Her focus will be on transforming how and where Group M UK works, the tools used, and how the media-buying group collaborates with other parts of WPP. 

The move also affects Group M’s senior media buyers who oversee upwards of £3bn in a year in spend, on behalf of hundreds of UK clients, including BT, Google, Nationwide Building Society, Tesco, Unilever and Sky.

Mark Collins, who topped Campaign’s 2019 list of the industry’s top UK media buyers, will move from chair of investment to overall Group M UK chair. 

Simon Willis will move from managing director of investment to become chief investment officer – leading the media investment management squad. 

Meanwhile, Paul Rowlinson moves from managing director of Group M Digital UK to become chief customer engagement and growth officer – leading this squad. 

Finance and business operations is still being put together, led by Charlotte Frijns, chief financial officer for Group M UK.

Group M said the new operating structure would “strengthen and supercharge” its five media agencies, Mindshare, MediaCom, Wavemaker, Essence and M/SIX, by supporting them in their growth ambitions and services delivery to clients.

Blackett said: “The changes announced today are the latest iteration of our goal to work in partnership with our clients to grow and create competitive advantage. By adopting a more agile way of working with these new overlapping squads we have the ability to adapt and shape our focus based solely on client needs.”

When Mark Read became WPP chief executive in 2018, he talked about simplifying the business as a priority, having inherited more than 160 agencies from his predecessor, Sir Martin Sorrell. 

However, Blackett dismissed any suggestion that the agency brands might become less important in the UK shake-up.

"It's all about the agency brands, because they are the main contact with our clients and the key personnel for our clients," she said. "We're there to support the agency brands and we're one team. It's not about them and us."

Ian Whittaker, an independent media consultant, who was previously an analyst at investment bank Liberum Capital, said all the major holding companies’ media-buying groups are looking at simplifying their businesses and he questioned whether agency brands matter as much to advertisers as overall group capability.

“It’s partly a cost thing but it’s also about getting in line with what their clients are thinking,” Whittaker told Campaign. “Clients don’t really care about the differentials; it’s a very outdated model of things.

“Increasingly the focus is going to be on multi-platform, as opposed to saying, ‘We’ve got a digital team, we’ve got a TV team', and so on. The traditional way in which they’ve done business is going to change quite rapidly over the next couple of years.”

WPP set up Group M in 2003 as a way to aggregate the media-buying spend of its agencies and obtain better prices from media owners.

But Read has said that tech and data insight are becoming as important as scale and volume in media buying and he promoted Christian Juhl, global CEO of Essence, to be global CEO of Group M last year.

A string of long-serving British executives, including Tom George, Nick Theakstone and Steve Goodman, have left in the past year or so.

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