WPP’s Jens Monsees on a ‘menu’ of pay cut options, a ‘few’ redundancies, and why COVID-19 is an ‘exciting’ time

At this morning's AGM, CEO Jens Monsees told shareholders that WPP AUNZ is facing a potential $10m half year loss. But a couple of hours later, he's adamant that these are "very exciting times". Speaking with Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby, Monsees also confronts the question of pay cuts and job losses, praises John Steedman, and explains why we can learn a lesson in adaptability from his children.

Just six months ago, Jens Monsees moved his family across the world to start as CEO of WPP AUNZ. He had never worked at an advertising agency before. With an established career in his home country of Germany, at companies like BMW and Google, he had never worked in Australia or New Zealand. His children didn’t speak English.

And already, he has faced two unprecedented crises; we barely had a chance to recover from the bushfires tearing through lives and livelihoods before COVID-19 took its turn to tear up life, and the industry, as we knew it. But when I speak with Monsees a couple of hours after he flagged a potential $10m half year loss during his first WPP AGM, he uses an unexpected adjective to describe the current situation: “exciting”.

Monsees spoke to Mumbrella after presenting at his first WPP AGM

“Everything that comes our way can be taken as a challenge or as an opportunity. I very much see it as a learning phase and therefore [these are] very exciting times,” he tells Mumbrella, stressing that his focus is on “the things that we can control”: clients and costs.

The business has implemented a $70m cost savings program that largely relies on WPP staff volunteering to take a pay cut, take unpaid leave, or work reduced hours. Monsees said there was a “very strong response” to the call out, but he understands “we have to be mindful and very flexible” of peoples’ circumstances, presenting them with a “flexible program” rather than unilaterally enforcing cuts like many companies across the industry have done.

“Everybody is in a different situation. Sometimes there are families that have to pay mortgages or they are couples where the partner lost the job, so we have to be very sensitive and careful with our staff and therefore we decided with the management team that we actually put a kind of menu out,” he explains.

“We said ‘Hey. We need to reduce our cost base due to the reduced … work and therefore you can participate in many ways. If it is unpaid leave nine out of ten days, or four out of five days, if it is a salary cut. We also said that the people who are on awards should not participate because they are at the lower end of the income [scale].”

His leadership team stepped up, absorbing salary reductions before the request was extended to the wider team. And for that, Monsees is grateful.

“As leaders, we need to lead by example. So my team was joining me when I proposed to be the first ones to have a salary cut. And they are contributing,” he says.

“They are thinking outside their box and actually being more collaborative than pre-COVID-19, supporting each other with resources, with capabilities, with strong people.

“I would focus on the solidarity across brands because there were brands that now are even better and have more to do … and more work, the banking and the FMCG sector, and there are others that have maybe traditional retail clients or airlines or travel.”

Monsees acknowledges that WPP agencies with clients in those latter categories have been the first impacted by redundancies, and he can’t specify how many more job losses are on the horizon.

“We are currently monitoring our pipeline of new business and our work that is requested from us,” he responds.

“We have to review our current structures and current capabilities and then we have to make sure that our company is future proof, but it’s too early and there’s too many uncertaint[ies] [at] the moment to talk about exact numbers.

“But we have done a few redundancies when, for example, an airline or business or client basically collapsed.”

The chief executive says there is always the option to look at such a crisis “like the glass is half empty or half full”. COVID-19 is allowing him to “be close with all our different people all across our region”, and showing him “how adaptive and flexible human beings are”, including his children.

“They were not talking English. I moved them from Germany to Australia,” he says.

“And now they have new friends, new schools, new sport mates, new languages, new food. I think it’s really a question of mindset and seeing the opportunities.”

He’s used to being part of a virtual team – at former workplace Google, his direct manager was based in Silicon Valley while he worked in Munich – and contends that the WPP team has become “closer than ever”: “I hold virtual town halls every two weeks. We have sometimes ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ virtual beers or a virtual coffee.”

But what does success look like for Monsees this year? He’s trying to move through his first 12 months in a new country, in a new job as CEO of the biggest advertising group – chair Robert Mactier said his appointment was a “unanimous” decision despite his lack of agency and market experience – but he can’t turn to financial metrics for evidence of progress.

In February, WPP posted a  “disappointing” and “not acceptable” (according to Mactier), $227.57m statutory net loss, driven not only by market conditions, but also client losses. April saw a 22% drop in net sales. And this morning, Monsees predicted an EBIT of anywhere “between breakeven and [a] $10m loss for the first half of 2020”, while Mactier admitted WPP underestimated “the magnitude of the government’s response to the crisis and what it would mean for consumers, our ability to work and the business models of many of our clients”.

Monsees’ response is, again, optimistic. When he gets to October and looks back on the year, success will mean “that we are actually achieving our deliverables that I put out at the beginning of the year. That our strategy is further implemented, and actually, it looks like COVID-19 is actually accelerating our strategy, and, lastly, and for me, always the most important point, that our clients are happy.”

The WPP brand portfolio

There’s a lot riding on Monsees’ strategy, first unveiled in February and involving stripping back the number of WPP brands, a new leadership structure, a ‘campus’ model led by existing WPP executives, and yesterday’s launch of a Centre of Excellence.

Mactier confidently claimed during the AGM that Monsees’ strategy will deliver cost savings above and beyond the $70m chunk articulated (a portion of that $70m will be permanent cost savings, thanks to redundancies and a reduction in facility costs).

And Monsees is equally sure about the transformation, especially because he’s supported by a leadership team that includes the likes of John Steedman, who served as CEO in a caretaker position between former leader Mike Connaghan’s departure and Monsees’ arrival a year later.


“You could always, if you [spend] one year [as the] interim CEO, you can expect another behaviour, that is maybe more competitive, and all of this was not happening,” Monsees says of Steedman.

“So he was, from the very beginning, a very strong partner and very trusted partner, and helping me. And I think I help him as well to drive our aligned strategy.

“So it’s a really great ramp up and a great welcome from all sides and I can say now that Australia is really feeling like home.”


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