WPP’s John Steedman on returning to the industry, his objectives for the group and why media is a tough gig in New Zealand

This week, WPP AUNZ confirmed industry veteran John Steedman would be appointed to the newly created executive position of chairman of WPP Media Services across Australia and New Zealand.

The appointment came as something of a surprise, given Steedman pulled back from the industry less than a year ago when he left his post as chief executive of Group M.

While early media reports said that WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell had personally asked him to take the position, Steedman plays down the significance of his correspondence with Sorrell.

“That’s somewhat embellished,” Steedman says. 

“I did speak to Martin about getting back together, but there were a number of people involved “The Martin’s name always gets bigger airwaves than anyone elses.”

Steedman also says that his personal desire to return to the industry played a major role in his decision to take the role.

Steedman arrives in his new role off the back of major change, as WPP merged with STW earlier this year. And the industry stalwart will certainly have his work cut out for him as he takes charge of developing an overarching strategy for the collective media business, which includes Ikon, Bohemia and Group M Agencies, Mediacom, Mindshare, MEC and Maxus.

At this stage, Steedman says there aren’t any plans to restructure any of the businesses in New Zealand. 

“I don’t want to change the models we have in place at the moment, because they’re all very different in terms of what the media agencies offer. It gives the clients choice.”

He also said that he did not have plans to change any of the key staff at any of the local agencies.

“We have very strong leadership in New Zealand.”

However, this does not mean that things are going to remain exactly as they are, with Steedman saying that he was looking at facilitating a more collaborative relationship between the agencies in the group, on both the media and creative side.

“There has been speculation [across the industry]about media going back into the creative agencies … but it would be pretty hard to put it back in,” he says.

“I think there are opportunities for creative and media agencies to work a lot closer together, and this could be more productive for clients and our business as a whole.”

Unlike most executives appointed across both Australia and New Zealand who spend most of their time on the other side of the ditch, Steedman says he will be very active in New Zealand in the coming months.

“I’m more closely involved in New Zealand at the moment than I would be in Australia. With [former Group M chief executive]Sean Seamer moving out, they’re looking to someone with Group M experience to help them continue building the business in that market.

“I will be spending every other week there, until we have the right person in place from a group perspective.”

On the topic of New Zealand, Steedman admits that it’s a tough market to run a profitable media business.

“It’s small in comparison to Australia,” he says.

“It’s much more difficult to make reasonable margins in New Zealand, because you just don’t have the scale that you have in the Australian market.”

However, on the flip side, Steedman says that New Zealand offers an interesting proposition from a global perspective.

“Because the cost is not as huge as in Australia, New Zealand is a good place to test new ideas to see if they’re viable from a global perspective as well. In terms of Western markets, New Zealand has a very similar structure to other markets, so it presents an opportunity to test new services that could be implemented globally.” 

Steedman is very familiar with the challenges of running a business in the local market, having seen a company he launched close down.

“We were there back when we launched Mindshare in 1997. We closed it down after a period of time, after the loss of a few clients.”

Despite this anecdote, Steedman seems optimistic about returning to New Zealand.   

 “I’m looking forward to being engaged with the business in New Zealand again,” he says.   

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