Since Ian Sohn assumed his new role within WPP in January, the world has changed. Previously the CEO of Wunderman Thompson USA's central region - which comprised Chicago, Austin, Minneapolis and Memphis - Ian is now a global a global client lead at WPP for the Walgreens Boots Alliance business, tasked with heading up scaled, multi-disciplinary/multi-agency efforts for the brand.
We'd planned to catch up with Ian about the shift in role before much of the world moved to our new normal of remote working. Given the state of the world and our industry's attempts to navigate it for itself and its clients, our chat turned out to be more pointed than originally expected. Addison Capper chatted with Ian about the intricacies of navigating a new, global role from his home, the importance for brands to think pragmatically right now, and why he hopes that the future holds the potential for an agency management style that respects the individual (a topic that he’s been vocal on before, racking up over 50,000 likes on LinkedIn).
LBB> Ian, congrats on your new role. Tell me about it. What are your main aims and ambitions as the global client lead at WPP?
Ian> Thank you. The role is as global lead for WPP’s Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) business. My aim is to find and activate the best and brightest from the vast WPP network on behalf of WBA. And related, to empower our teams to do their best work.
LBB> Your previous role was focused on the Central States of the US and within Wunderman Thompson. Now you've got a global role and on the scale of WPP. How are you finding that shift? What is different about it?
Ian> Interestingly, in terms of team size, the scale is roughly the same between the roles. But now with a roster of WPP agencies from around the world involved, the complexity and coordination is quite different. Firstly, emails roll in on a 24-hour basis due to the global nature of the business. That’s been an adjustment, shall we say. Second, I’ve had the opportunity to meet, interact with and befriend people I might not have otherwise. That’s been great. Finally, it’s widened my aperture a bit on how I look at our business.
LBB> Your focus is multi-agency and multi-disciplinary efforts - why are initiatives like this important for clients?
Ian> I’m not sure it’s any more complicated than this: it’s more efficient and effective to create and activate big ideas across all channels when all disciplines sit under one roof. Actually, I’m sure it’s a bit more complicated than that, but my dog is standing by the door and clearly needs to be taken out.
LBB> What are the tricks to navigating so many cogs? What do you enjoy about orchestrating such things?
Ian> This is where my previous experience as both a client and agency lead comes in handy; namely that I have a lot of empathy for my internal and external stakeholders. I understand a client’s rightful desire for the best resources; and the individual agencies’ desire for clarity. Hopefully that’s coming through in how I comport myself. What I’ve found so rewarding is the breadth of relationships I’ve made simply by doing my job. The human connection has been wonderful.
LBB> It sounds like your new job involves you overseeing a lot of different parties and ensuring that they're all on the same path. That's a challenge in itself but it just notched up a level now that we're all confined to our homes. Generally, how are you finding working from home life?
Ian> Not to be flip or a contrarian, but I don’t feel like we’ve missed a beat. Or if we have, it’s a blind spot I hope the team will call out. For sure we’re being more purposeful (and disciplined) about communicating with each other and clients; but we’re a team of responsible adults who’ve embraced the challenge and risen to the occasion.
LBB> And then more specifically, how are you finding navigating this new role from home, while (probably) all other parties are also working from their homes?
Ian> With the amount I normally travel, I’m very accustomed to working in this way. My days have been busier than ever, so the daylight hours pass quickly with calls, video conferences and the like. On a personal level, and truthfully, it can be a bit lonely. My children are away with their mother for a few weeks until things settle a bit, but thankfully there’s FaceTime and my dog, Cash.
LBB> I saw a tweet from you the other day about "trying to be a part of the solution" - how do you see that solution right now? How can our industry help the world right now?
Ian> I think advertising can do several things right now, among them: Educate, celebrate, entertain. All three have tremendous value in helping stop and cure the spread of the virus; tell the stories of the brave women and men – from grocery store cashiers to nurses and many others – who are literally putting their lives on the line for the rest of us; and bring badly needed smiles to our faces. Advertising can’t solve anything on our own, but we can play a role.
LBB> As well as helping the world, our industry also needs to help itself - how can companies within the advertising industry ensure that they're surviving and flourishing in this new norm that we're adjusting to?
Ian> If I had THE answer I’d be famous. I don’t, and I’m not. But I can tell you for certain that talent fluidity is incredibly valuable during these moments. Meaning, the ability to move people around to address specific client needs, without worry for P+L or ego or process. There are some clients in sectors hit extremely hard by Covid-19 – to quickly redirect any excess people capacity to other clients who need more resources is a real luxury right now. I also hope that this moment-in-time reinforces, for the long-run, a management style that respects the individual. This is something I’ve written about previously and have a passion for.
LBB> Your clients are also likely in unprecedented times right now. What kind of conversations are you having with them at the moment?
Ian> Before we ever get into business, nearly every conversation starts with “How are you and your family holding up?” That human connection is vital. In terms of marketing conversations related to Covid-19, we spend a lot of time talking about the role of the brand in the current environment; and how we find the right balance of informative, additive, empathetic, strong and a number of other factors. Part of those conversations are constantly evaluating what other leading companies are doing – not to copy but to learn and be inspired. But there are also plenty of conversations about initiatives and programs that will land after we’ve (hopefully) gotten to the other side of this. We don’t want to find ourselves flat-footed in the future.
LBB> We're seeing some clients - like Coca-Cola in the UK - cease all marketing for the time being. What are your thoughts on reactions like that?
Ian> I think about it pragmatically. Some brands don’t necessarily have anything to add to the conversation, so shouldn’t try to force it. I think other brands are facing crushing economic realities and will pull back on marketing for cost-savings purposes. Finally, others are looking at shifting spend from pure-play marketing to employee, community and first-responders efforts.
LBB> How do you see the future playing out for brands and the industry?
Ian> That’s a big question, particularly since I’ve been so heads-down in the present. There’s a part of me that thinks maybe we’ll go back to the ‘old’ normal eventually. But in some ways I hope not, because I’ve seen some really interesting new thinking, processes and techniques emerge over the past few weeks. One thing I feel pretty sure of – at least I hope for – is that brands will look at this moment and realise how powerful a tightly-defined purpose can be in navigating times of crisis or unease. At least from what I’ve seen, brands with a bright north star know exactly what role to play (or not) in these times.
LBB> A bit more of a lighthearted question to finish! How are you keeping busy at home when you're not working?
Ian> I’ve been running nearly every day, trying new recipes, catching up on all the shows I’ve missed, and having deep philosophical conversations with my dog. Oh, and Twitter and lots of ice cream.