by Doug Drinkwater

How WPP CIO Rachel Higham is simplifying IT and rethinking diversity

Nov 03, 2021
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

WPP’s new CIO, Rachel Higham, is consolidating IT and rethinking vendor partnerships to support the ad behemoth’s business transformation, as well as hit lofty diversity and inclusion (D&I) and sustainability goals.

rachel higham
Credit: Rachel Higham

Simplicity is the word Higham uses to describe her north star, and for good reason. Last December, she joined WPP as its first CIO and she’s since faced the unenviable task of bringing 40 teams together in one IT group, to support a change in operating model and to design and deploy global platforms for a worldwide organisation serving agencies and blue-chip clients.

For Higham, who has held senior IT positions at BT and Vodafone, the new role represents an opportunity to deliver world-class services while simplifying IT and  enhancing business agility for an ad giant trying to stay relevant in an ever-changing market.

Founded by Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP is the world’s largest advertising and PR group, housing an array of household-name advertising agencies, from Ogilvy and GroupM to Mediacom, Mindshare and Essence. As it stands today, the company operates in 110 countries, serving clients in every market from the Fortune 500 to the FTSE 100.

Yet like many businesses, WPP saw an economic dip in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Billings and revenue fell year-on-year, according to WPP’s annual 2020 report, although revenue increased 19.3% in its quarter to June, with US$2.9 billion of new work in the first half of the year reportedly coming through clients such as AstraZeneca, JPMorgan Chase and Bumble. The company is now targeting 3%-4% growth in 2022.

Reporting to CFO John Rogers, Higham arrived at an organisation changing direction with IT. There had long been a core infrastructure group providing compute, storage and networking capabilities but WPP wanted to consolidate the entire IT function and  bring all agency technology together.

Consolidating IT, building global platforms

This has meant consolidating agency IT, building global platforms, simplifying processes, bringing teams together and investing in productivity, collaboration and security tools to serve the breadth and depth of an organisation with 140,000 staff. For Higham, the job is about serving the business, rather than necessarily leading it

“I think CIOs often fall into the trap of trying to lead a transformation; you actually need to follow a broader transformation and be in service of it,” says Higham.

The immediate task for Higham has been to change the ‘break-fix’ model of IT, and to develop one unified group able to support WPP in its bid to better serve agencies and employees.

Progress has been made through WPP’s three transformation ‘layers’. The company has looked to introduce a new operating model, implement product-centric and design thinking principles, and adopt cloud-first architecture to simplify its IT estate, while being able to serve colleagues and clients at scale.

Higham describes WPP’s technology vision as centring on ‘dynamic infrastructure platforms’, which allow the organisation to quickly build solutions and pivot to market changes.

As part of this, Higham’s team — which conducted research into some 4,000 employees to understand IT pain points and future needs prior to developing the WPP IT strategy — has sought to build a zero trust global network for single identity management, to connect all collaboration and productivity tools across the company and create global platforms to help manage clients, digitise creative and production workflows and tap into employee specialisms.

Public cloud is key to sustainability efforts

A key element of the strategy was WPP’s roll-out of Microsoft Cloud Studio for cloud-based content creation, production and editing, with Azure cloud compute, storage and services providing the infrastructure and scale for the platform. To support hybrid working, WPP is also now piloting Surface devices.   

Simplifying the IT estate may be high on Higham’s to-do list but so too is sustainability. And it’s here that the IT function has taken a novel approach to vendor partnerships.

WPP has a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions in its operations by 2025 and across its entire supply chain by 2030. Higham thinks technology has a key role to play.

“We’re putting a holistic plan together and looking deep into our supply chain. How do we inspire and incentivise our partners to step up to the ambition that we’ve set, and then help us close the gap? If we look at technology, we are 6% of our Scope Three emissions that we’ve committed to halving by 2030,” Higham notes. “I think we can actually beat that — I think I can probably take around 60% of all of our energy-led emissions out of our technology estate.”

While moving to the public cloud is one of the biggest levers WPP can pull to achieve sustainability goals, instrumenting their buildings and deploying smart building and community management solutions in new campuses will also have significant impact, Higham says.

The WPP CIO believes WPP can reduce building-to-building emissions by between 20% and 30% through technology, but also points to the storing and archiving of data, of using logs in the server estate to intervene before they fail and even simplifying processes so employees send less energy-sapping email attachments. A grander plan is to reduce data centre carbon emissions by 60%.

Diversity and inclusion goals include partners

There’s also work to do on D&I within IT, as Higham openly acknowledges. While WPP publicly announced in its 2020 diversity report that 51% of senior leaders are female,  with 40% sitting at executive level, the company is still striving to get the numbers in the tech function on an upward trajectory.

“If you look at IT, we are lower than the organisational average. We’re at 17% gender diversity, which is not where we need to be. But in this last seven months, we’ve moved our intake from 17% women to 34%.”

To achieve this, WPP pushed for more diverse lists for interview panels and looked at how they describe advertised roles internally and externally. Higham has also been developing internal training programmes, ensuring her own leadership team is open to all, including neurodiversity, and invested in team coaching. The WPP CIO expects to see the same intensity from her providers.

“As we select partners … even in their pitch to us … did the people around the table have equal share of voice? Did they turn up with an all-male Caucasian team? Can they talk to us about the meaningful interventions they’ve put into their organisation to shift the dial on those diversity measures, and prove it out?”

This, says Higham, extends to using quarterly business reviews to show diversity improvements and has now led to WPP partnering with five of its key outsourcing partners on a gender diversity development programme. Some are doing better than others; one WPP partner introduced a 400-person testing team in India, comprising 72% women and 68% of people under the age of 30.

Separately, WPP has worked with Workday on the Seedlings training programme to close the Workday skills gap, launched activities for mothers returning to work and NextGen Leaders for college students and recent graduates. The firm is also pushing its apprenticeships and graduates programmes for more diverse intakes.

“Let’s not just fill it with the usual candidates,” urges Higham. “Let’s fill that talent gap with new diverse talent pools. That’s people who are returning to work, people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnic diversities, but who wouldn’t normally consider this as their viable route for them.

“Let’s invest, give them the skills they need, create a great talent pool for the market and then we can all fight for it.”

Where next for WPP?

The WPP CIO says the next six to nine months is where the ‘rubber hits the road’.

“It’s about living up to our commitments around co-designing these new global platforms, making sure we get a rich set of inputs from all our agency businesses, all our geographies, all the different layers of our organisation,” Higham says.

“Those are the two focus areas; building out the future skill-set and continuing the great work on D&I, and then delivering on our commitment to co-design our new platforms as well making quick things on to help people cope with hybrid working.”