President Wayne Levings Has Confidence In Kantar, With Or Without WPP Ownership

Kantar is facing a lot of speculation about its future at WPP.

Since Martin Sorrell resigned as CEO of WPP in April, analysts and investors have buzzed about how the holding company can unlock value for shareholders in a period of slow growth. Many say selling the Kantar market research business, whose growth has lagged behind WPP’s, could be one way to do so.

While the conversation is disruptive for Kantar, WPP ownership doesn’t affect its position in the market or relationships with clients, said President Wayne Levings.

“The questions our clients have and the desire to solve those problems, that’s not going away,” he said. “The fundamental demand in the marketplace is not in decline.”

Kantar, which offers traditional market research, segmentation and measurement for marketers, as well as brand sales consulting, has been called by many a legacy business that’s not well integrated with WPP’s other assets.

While Kantar has been evolving and streamlining – it merged four consulting brands under Kantar Consulting in January and is developing more automated research solutions for clients – it’s pressured by the same constraints facing WPP and the broader agency sector.

“As part of WPP, we have high exposure to CPG clients who have been under pressure. They’re cutting marketing budgets and, within that, marketing research budgets,” Levings said. “Clients are spending differently. They’ve moved toward automated solutions, and those come at lower revenue. We’re seeing good growth in agile and automated solutions. They’re offsetting some of the clients we’ve seen shift dollars.”

Levings spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Why is Kantar being floated by analysts as an obvious divestment for WPP? 

WAYNE LEVINGS: If you compare WPP to competitors, none of them have an asset like Kantar. Some would argue that’s a competitive advantage. Some would argue that the business needs to be more focused on creative and media. There will be a view that Kantar’s performance has lagged group performance, and there might be value in not having Kantar as part of the portfolio.

Is that a shortsighted strategy? How will it affect clients?

Clients will continue to have access to Kantar. We own that relationship, not via WPP. WPP provides greater access to clients, but it’s not as if clients would lose access to Kantar.

The question for us and for WPP is, can we better integrate Kantar so it becomes a key driver of WPP performance? If we don’t feel that we can drive strong integration and make a bigger impact, I think the analyst point of view is, would WPP be better being more streamlined?

It’s a fair argument. That’s still very much a work in progress.

How would your relationship with clients change if you weren’t part of WPP? 

The ownership structure is not the most important thing. We work with WPP agencies, but we also work with non-WPP agencies. Our ability to drive clients’ database solutions is somewhat irrespective of ownership.

You can build relationships, solutions and products together, and we’ve done that with GroupM, but we can also do that outside of the ownership structure. Not being part of a public company might allow us to make some changes.

People say the vision for integrating Kantar and WPP hasn’t been realized. Do you agree with that? 

The challenge for WPP is about integration. WPP was a pioneer around integrating creative, media and data to meet clients’ needs. There have been examples of that working, but we could do more and we could do faster. How do we accelerate that and make it deeper and more meaningful?

Within WPP, some of the large agencies, ourselves [included], went through significant reorganizations. Kantar was made up of a bunch of different companies. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure we’re much more integrated. GroupM have been doing the same work. We did some of this at Ogilvy, which had been quite fragmented. There’s more work to do around integrating WPP’s proposition as a whole for clients.

So WPP’s agencies have been consolidating internally. Are the criticisms against Sorrell about transforming WPP too slowly unfair? 

Various components have been getting themselves better organized. WPP itself has been focused and organized around clients and countries.

But that’s a judgment call. Certain folks will say, without a doubt, we could’ve moved more quickly. Other folks would say that the pace was right given the enormity change and that you need to keep talent motivated and focused. The analyst view would be that the integration wasn’t as fast as the external market would expect, but that criticism has come up in the past year as WPP growth has slowed.

How has morale been since Sorrell left?

Within WPP, Kantar operates relatively independently. So for a lot of people it doesn’t have a day-to-day impact. We have been very open and honest to say, “You’re going to be a reading a lot in the press. There’s a lot of speculation.”

At the end of the day, we’ve got a strong brand, fantastic clients, great talent, products and solutions and everyone in the business needs to feel confident about that and stay focused. I’d be delusional if I said that it didn’t cause some distraction. People read stuff in the press. But, overall, folks are getting on with the work at hand.

Kantar was a really important part of Sorrell’s strategy for WPP. Does the current leadership share that vision? 

It’s true that Martin strongly thought that Kantar was a key differentiator for WPP.

It’s less of a case of Mark and Andrew feeling differently. The key question for WPP is, what’s the best way to drive shareholder return and what makes the most sense for the business? That becomes part of, what role does Kantar play in the integration? If it’s a central part of the WPP story, that makes sense. If it’s not, then maybe there’s a better way of working with Kantar in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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