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Inside View: WPP – MBA Recruiter

An MBA recruiter from WPP, the world's largest advertising group, explains what it takes to get hired into one of its 350 marketing and communications businesses.

Thu Nov 13 2014

WPP is the world’s largest advertising group. The NASDAQ-listed company, which has a market capitalization of £16.4 billion, employs about 180,000 people globally.

The FTSE100 group has 350 different businesses, which range from marketing to data investment management, in 110 different countries.

The company runs an MBA Fellowship Program that is open to applicants who have obtained or will obtain an MBA between August 2014 and July 2015. The program, which is highly competitive, has three one-year rotations in different WPP companies, and across different marketing disciplines.

Separately, WPP’s sprawling business empire hires MBAs directly – usually in a in a strategy or commercial role, or MBAs will carry out strategic consulting, according to Frances Illingworth, WPP's global recruitment director.

WPP’s CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, graduated from the Harvard MBA. The group values MBA students and is open to applications from all business schools.

The company is becoming more data driven – digital advertising is the now fastest-growing part of the advertising industry – and automated ad buying in real-time is changing the nature of how the sector operates.

Frances spoke exclusively to BusinessBecause about WPP’s hiring strategy and the evolving industry landscapes it operates in.

What does your ideal CV look like, and is work in the advertising industry a requirement?

It’s not a requirement – but when people understand our industry, they have a better view of why they have done an MBA. They can move more swiftly and easily into a general management role because they [have] acquired financial acumen [on the MBA].

The company has global operations. Which world regions will new hires have the opportunity to work in?

We’re very open to people working internationally. WPP has a whole range of very large multinational clients – Unilever, Kraft, HSBC – and in order to work in that world we need people [who can work in an international environment].

MBA programs are international in class make-up. Does this give MBA students an advantage? 

Not necessarily. It depends on what role they’re going to fulfil. Those with MBAs can bring a lot more experience with other businesses [and] of acquiring more commercial skills, but I wouldn’t say that they are better graduates.

What promotional opportunities can an MBA expect within three years of working at WPP?

The structure of our business is 350 companies. They are of a size where people get recognition very early, and we’re a business that doesn’t have many hierarchies – it’s straight forward to move up.

Depending on what that individual’s career wishes are, we can create a development path for them towards general management, or maybe global strategy, relatively quickly.

Do you work with or recruit from any specific business schools?

We’re open to applications from all the business schools. [But] we do have relationships: Martin Sorrell [WPP CEO] went to Harvard; our strategy director when to INSEAD.

Is there anything you would like to see schools focus on in their curriculums to make students more employable?

Many of the schools don’t really have the best courses in marketing and communication, particularly communication.  

WPP has been investing in technology companies, and digital advertising is the fastest-growing part of the advertising industry. Is this now the focus area for WPP, and is digital knowledge or experience something you look for in candidates?

They don’t need to be techies. I don’t think they need to be technically qualified, but they need to understand the impact of digital on the way clients operate [and] the way they sell products.

If you look at clients [and] customers, the way they get information about a product, interact with a brand [or] purchase a particular product is multichannel now.

There isn’t one customer journey. That can be through a range of different communications and interactions with a brand, and that’s what we need to respond to.

Automated ad buying in real-time is changing how advertisers purchase slots with publishers. What impact has this had on the advertising industry? 

The whole scope of the business is very wide. So in our media companies, we look at real-time purchasing at different levels, and that’s particularly true of the way we are investing in all our data businesses.

Data is becoming an important part of how we look at the customer journey. We look at direct marketing and digital businesses – where we look at [customer] response – and then we look at it in media businesses, in terms of media consumption. How we measure that data is increasingly important.

Do you value job candidates who are skilled in big data and data analytics, as many business schools are training students to become?

Yeah – without question. How one looks at data and media data is critical to our business now.

Is there a concern that media companies might become over-reliant on data?

No. The important thing about data is that it’s not the data itself [that is important], it’s how we use it to make communication better.

The important thing is [that] we have people that can look at that data and analyse what it means. You can’t become over-reliant on data, and we should never forget we are a creative business; how we add value is by looking at a particular product – an ad[vert], research, data – and understanding what that data can give us.

Advertising is naturally a creative business. Do you look for creativity in job candidates?

No. Creativity can come from a lot of different places. What we’re looking for in our employees are people that can look at something from a different perspective.

One of the things that’s important about MBAs is, although the essence of MBA [programs] teaches you how to frame you’re thinking, what we don’t want is people that think in a particular way and only in a particular way. Frameworks are important for managing the process, but we need to overlay a level of creativity on top of that.

What is the most interesting candidate background you’ve come across?

I think that it’s less about what people have done and more about the individuals. What I’m looking for is a level of curiosity that is over and above the job – I like to see people that have wide areas of interest, [people] that have done things outside their coursework that can engage in dialogue about different things.

They may have entered teams into challenges, competitions, [or taken] entrepreneurial courses.

Do you value entrepreneurship in a candidate?

Absolutely. WPP is a large acquisition business, we acquire companies all the time, and most have been started by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial spirit is of critical importance to us in how they bring their businesses into WPP.

WPP's chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, graduated from the Harvard MBA class of 1968. Does that influence the value placed in business school hires?

We definitely value business school hires. It’s not necessarily something we look for [an MBA degree] but it’s an indicator of somebody’s ability to understand business in a wider sense, and a breath of experience. For me, it’s an indicator of a certain type of individual.

What can MBA students do to stand out?

We’re looking for originality of sorts. For me, it’s to include within the application process an answer to one of the pre-arranged questions that shows perception or creativity, or just a different approach.

MBAs [programs] can teach you particular ways of thinking and we need a sense of innovation in our business.

We’re not producing bankers and we’re not McKinsey. Our business is about brands and communication.