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Q&A with WPP’s Jean-Michel Wu

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A class act

VITAL STATS: Jean-Michel Wu is the regional talent director for WPP Asia Pacific, and has been with the company for more than a decade. He is responsible for executive recruiting and talent initiatives across WPP’s operating companies in Asia Pacific and also oversees the group’s fellowship programme in the region.

How would you describe your role within WPP?
Predominantly, we are a recruiting function for senior management for the entire group. In Asia, that’s about 40,000 people in about 120 different companies. We work very closely with the CEOs and my role has changed throughout the time that I’ve been in it. It started out as a recruitment function, but it’s become more strategic in terms of managing talent and moving talent within the group.

How different is the recruitment strategy when it comes to hiring senior management executives?
There are different levels of recruitment in companies, and we very much position ourselves at the top – how you recruit people at that level is very, very different from how you’d do it at the mid or bottom level.

What helps?
The tools are very important, which includes a database which contains all the senior people across the entire group. We also use LinkedIn extensively and a programme called Jobvite, all of which allows us to contact everybody we need to. But the most important thing we do is create a human element – a personal relationship – with each one of our candidates. It’s not something that a recruitment tool can do.That human element is a lot more important at a senior level.

Do you believe recruiting at a senior level is something far removed from traditional recruiting at other levels of an organisation?
Our recruiters have come through mid-level recruitment and they know how to do it. They know how to read a resume, how to put forward candidates, how to take a proper briefs, but it’s so much more important now to focus on how to work more closely with both the client and the candidate.

It’s a stage where you do need to learn the basics first, before moving up to the top. I started out in the UK as a contract recruiter, which I think is quite a tough environment to be in because it’s quite transactional. To be reading a resume and speaking to people at different levels of their career, you need to have those basic skills first before being, in my opinion, a senior recruiter.

Do you think that’s the mindset of a lot of senior recruiters?
Senior headhunters often take the stance that they’ve had a career before in whatever industry they’re in because they can then transition into becoming a recruiter in that one market. I think that’s fine, but I think you also need to be a good practitioner at what you do, and be passionate about doing good recruitment, rather than just recruiting.

It’s great to match make people but there’s a science behind what we do.

How do you align your talent strategy with WPP’s overall business strategy?
In terms of our business strategy and our people strategy, WPP exists to develop and manage talent, and apply that talent throughout the world for the benefit of clients, to do so in partnership and to do so with profit. That’s what we’re trying to align ourselves with. First and foremost, our business is people, and we try to make sure that there’s a balance between great creative work and fantastic account servicing people.

Are people more important to this industry than others?
Without our people, we’re literally nothing in our industry. It’s a very important position to be in for the group because you can change the entire company by changing the leadership. Our group is really proud to be at the forefront of people. Young & Rubicam is a good example where we changed leadership. Mediacom is another good example – in fact last week they were named Agency Network of the Year.

How do you inspire that in your team?
The really lovely thing about what we do is that we can see the impact we have on the entire business, and the staff who work within that business. If you look at Y&R, they probably have about 1,500 people in the region, and they all rely on a very strong leader to be a talisman and get them going, and we’ve been central in providing that kind of service.

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In this industry, what do you think are the biggest talent challenges in the region?
There’s definitely a scarcity of people who would like to come into this industry. For years, other industries have been better at advertising themselves to junior staff and universities than we have as an industry. We’ve just gone down the pecking order with university students who would much rather work in professional services or an IT company. That means the actual overall talent we had has been harder to find. We are trying to fight back, and one of the ways is with WPP’s fellowship programme.

This programme has been reported to have a smaller admission rate than Harvard University.
We have eight people year globally who get into this programme, out of more than 2,000 applicants. I’m really proud to say that we’ve hired two from Singapore in the last year, and we’ll have another two in China next year. The programme, which is a three-year course with a one-year rotation, is one of our strongest assets.

How does WPP select who gets into the programme?
The actual selection process is incredibly tough. One of the prerequisites is us asking ourselves, “if we’re stuck on a plane sitting next to somebody for six hours, would we want this person sitting next to us?” We have our old fellows who have been through the process themselves to select the applicants first and to whittle down the selection into a manageable amount so we can go into the second round, which is held in each of the countries at a local level. Once we’ve identified one or two from each country, we then invite them to come to London and do a two-day assessment with our senior WPP people. But after the three years, there’s no guarantee they will stay on at WPP – although more often than not, they do.

How is the programme structured?
It’s up to the candidate where they want to go. They might start in London at an advertising agency, and then they could move to Shanghai and do something in public relations, and at the end of the programme, there’s no open offer – they have to go out and actually find a job within the group. The retention rate has been very high, and it’s been high because the graduates are very smart in understanding the relationships they build within WPP are at the highest level.

It’s the best programme any junior graduate could get on if they want to be in marketing communications.

Why’s that?
We have Sir Martin Sorrell [CEO of WPP Group] as a mentor to one of them, as an example. Miles Young, the CEO of Ogilvy, is also a mentor. It means the candidate has access to the highest people in the group who are highly regarded as being great thinkers at the group.

How would you describe a WPP fellow?
They are not only smart, curious, but they’re also interesting and interested. They seem to be able to suck up as much information as possible, but also are interesting themselves and can tell you about things that are happening around the world.

Aside from the fellowship programme, WPP has also invested in building a physical school in China to ramp up talent efforts.
We decided that we needed some creative firepower in the China market, so we worked together with a university in Shanghai to create the WPP School of Marketing and Communications. This is our first intake of students doing a three-year course and they are all now interns at different agencies.

What sets this school aside from the other marketing communications programmes already offered?
What we’ve done is create a curriculum based on creativity rather than something like account management. What we’ve found is that, in China, the craft skills is phenomenal. What they’re lacking is in the ideas generation side, so we’ve tried to focus on that to let junior Chinese graduates become more focused on creativity.

Do you think employees in the region are hungrier for talent development opportunities now than they were in the past?
In the 11 years that I’ve been in WPP, there has always been the problem where staff have been expecting things to happen.

But in our industry, our best people are the ones who create their own situations, and create their own opportunities.

How do you cultivate that environment where employees can create their own opportunities?
Every company is different, so what we like to think is that WPP doesn’t have a dominating culture – every operating company, both those we have grown or acquired – have their own culture, and I think that’s really important because everybody is different. Every person has a different attitude towards how they want to work, and it’s up to them to find out which environment they’re most comfortable in.

All of our operating companies are doing well, and they’re doing it in a collaborative way with each other. A large client nowadays would really appreciate for there to be one contact they can talk to about their marketing communications.

How do you make sure the agencies don’t get competitive, because they are fighting for the same talent pool?
What I love about WPP is that there’s a lot of collaboration in all of the agencies. We create a lot of events for our own people so they can get to know each other and share best practices, and there’s very rarely any form of competition or rivalry. We realised some of our agencies might be extremely good at their own discipline, but they could be even better if they combined their work together.

What is WPP’s secret to keeping the talent message consistent across Asia?
What we like to do is share best practices. Whenever an agency introduces a new system, we evaluate and see whether it’s useful to share with the other companies. At the end of the day, each company has their own P&L. Of course, we want all our operating companies to have high growth, but it’s really dependent on the leaders we put in there to run each company.

WPP is one of the few companies we’ve met which has built “talent” as an independent function sitting outside of HR.
I’ve been a proponent of that, of trying to bring in talent for that reason, because we are there as partners, not just a recruitment team. Once you start acting like an internal recruitment company, you won’t be able to provide anything else aside from recruitment services.

We do a lot more than just providing candidates.

We provide candidates who we think are fantastic to bring into the group and send them to individuals who we think they should work with.

What’s the advantage of having talent professionals who understand that aspect of their role?
A lot of the talent heads we have are individuals who have been part of the business, and have decided what they really enjoy in their business is the people side of things. Our most successful people are the ones who know the business and understand how they can work closer with the agencies to provide better training, development, succession planning and recruitment. Those four areas are separate from the administration side of HR, which is just as important, but I think in our industry, we need to have both of those services. We won’t survive with one and not the other. I definitely do see it as two separate functions.

Can other industries adopt this mindset?
It depends on what they want to do. I don’t know other industries well so it’s hard to comment, but to be honest, if you’re dealing with anybody, anyone who is human then you definitely have to have a human element in managing them.

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