WPP’s global CCO Rob Reilly on its new Toronto Campus, and why it’s like Lollapalooza

While staff have been moving in for a few months now, WPP on Wednesday officially opened its long-anticipated Toronto Campus—a 250,000 square-foot space on the shores of Lake Ontario housing more than 2,000 employees from its creative, media and PR agencies. Toronto becomes the latest city to house a WPP Campus, following Prague, Milan, Detroit and London.

Several of the holding company’s senior leaders were in Toronto for the official opening, including CEO Mark Read and global chief creative officer Rob Reilly, who spoke with The Message about WPP’s vision of Toronto as “Creativity North,” and one of North America’s leading creative centres of excellence.

I’d love to hear your assessment of the Campus concept, and what makes it work: When I first started at WPP, I wasn’t a fan of the Campuses—I didn’t get the concept. Now that I’ve been here and seen it in action, I love it. Maybe the pandemic has really reminded us how much creative people like being around other creative people.

I want these campuses to feel like Lollapalooza, with interesting acts and interesting people mixing with each other. They don’t always have to agree on everything, but they have a shared vision of amazing experiences and making great things… and the space is really set up for bringing in events, bringing in speakers, and having more of a collaborative mindset.

When you go to the canteen floor, there’s so much soft seating, and great design, and great quality furniture. The cobbler’s kids can’t have the worst shoes, you know? We can’t portray ourselves as the most creative company in the world if it doesn’t feel creative.

I’m glad you compared it to Lollapalooza and not, say, Woodstock ’99: It’s much more positive, with good vibes. At Lollapalooza, you really feel like it’s a creative environment: Fun, interesting, surprising and inclusive of all types of points of view and people.

WPP has said it envisions Toronto becoming “Creativity North,” employing the best and brightest creative minds. Why is it uniquely positioned to achieve that?: Canada has some of the best creative minds in history. And [they have] a style that’s somewhat endearing: Such humble people, not a lot of chest-pounding. I come from America, where there’s a lot of that—but in the same sense, there’s a lot of swagger [in Canada] when it comes to music, and creativity, and design, entertainment and comedy.

Canada is arguably one of the top countries producing musical acts, comedic acts or actors…  Some of the best creative people I’ve ever worked with are from Canada

We’re also aware that not everybody wants to move somewhere else. People love Canada, so we want to make WPP and its agencies in Canada the best that they can be, so people can have careers here and fuel other parts of the world. The great thing about technology now is that you’ll be working on global briefs, interesting projects that might not be in Canada. You don’t have to leave this great country to have a great career, and be successful and famous in this business. You can do it right here.

Speaking of global briefs, we’ve been seeing increased collaboration between international offices in the WPP network. Do you expect that to become more prevalent?: I think collaboration’s going to happen more and more. I’m completely open to it and push it. There are two main reasons why agencies don’t collaborate more: How do we get paid, and how do we get credit. I make sure the right people get credit, and other people have to figure out how they get paid… If you truly are part of the collaboration and contributed to the idea, then we’re fair.

Creative people aren’t protective at all: We all love collaborating, whether it’s with other agencies or other kinds of industries. This is where the world is going, but we just need to figure out the financial model. Luckily, I’ve chosen a job where that isn’t my problem. I’ve got to be conscious of the money part, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming as big as I want.

Now that they’re all sharing a building, how do you maintain the culture of a Taxi versus an Ogilvy or Wunderman Thompson. Are there any concerns about the agencies losing their individuality or identity?:  Mark Read had a great quote about this very issue. He said “If your address is the defining characteristic of your agency, you’re not going to be very good.” It’s your people, your point of view, and the work you make.

This campus is designed for agencies to have their own space. We’ve given them the basics, and now they’re going to add more of their own characteristics and culture.

The most important thing is momentum: Momentum and winning fixes everything. That’s the culture I care about the most, because when you’re on top of the world and you’re winning, and you’ve got momentum, man, it feels good. That kind of feeling is addictive. But when we win something, I’m on to the next thing, because I never want that high to end.

WPP was named Most Creative Company at Cannes this year. Given what you’ve said about the importance of momentum, what do you see as your role in keeping the ride going for as long as possible?: For a long time I’ve been saying “Hire great people and get out of the way.”

You’ve got to hire great people or find them within the organization. Sometimes people have been here a long time and just need someone to prop them up. You’ve got to have that positivity cascading down through all the levels of employees, but for me it’s much more about influence, inspiration and visible leadership. It’s less about authority. If you need to make people afraid for their job because they didn’t deliver, what kind of organization is that?

I spend a lot of time with the CEOs, not just the CCOs of the company…it’s really getting the CEOs to realize that they are key to creativity happening. It starts with Mark [Read], and then all the other CEOs globally: Do you care about creativity enough to make sure it happens? It’s your number one business driver. If you help your brands do the things in culture that people are talking about, sharing and spreading and loving, that’s the real reward.

Putting you on the spot a little, but is there any work out of Canada you’ve been particularly impressed by?  There’s a lot of work I’ve never seen that’s just fantastic. You’re seeing this work and you say “Why isn’t this bigger? Do we need to do a better job of promoting it?”

Because these ideas are first class, and should be winning bigger prizes. But we’re still struggling to get some of this work recognized on a global basis. Some of the pieces I looked at today, I said “This should be winning a Grand Prix in Cannes.”

You talk about Canadians being more humble and self-deprecating, but it might be to their detriment. The work is first-class, but it’s not getting shared enough. It’s inspiring that we’re making these kinds of ideas, but why am I not seeing them sitting in New York City?

There’s been a lot of talk about awards, and if there should be less focus on the baubles and more focus on the work. Do you sense that?  Sometimes people say things because they haven’t been successful at winning awards. I’ve been on both sides of winning and losing, but if you do the right things—if you see it as doing the right thing for the brand—the awards are the by-product, not the motivation.

It’s already won in culture if it’s being written about, and people are talking about it and loving it… I think judges are smart enough to realize that when you do something for Telus and it wins an award, it’s really different than winning for a charity.

If some people need the awards as motivation to make better work, fine. I do think better work leads to better sales. I don’t show any pieces of work that didn’t have wildly successful business results, no matter how many awards it won at Cannes. It’s a good measure at the end of the year that we made stuff we’re proud of.\

Chris Powell