Pip Hulbert on proving the doubters 'wrong' on her tenth anniversary
We catch up with Wunderman Thompson CEO Pip Hulbert and one of her oldest clients -Carolyn McKeever from Specsavers - as Hulbert celebrates a decade at the agency
Naysayers who were scoffing at WPP CEO Mark Read’s decision to scrap J Walter Thompson and merge it with Wunderman in 2018 are not laughing now. The integrated global network has been collecting industry accolades as best in class, and the success is in no small part due to the force that is the UK shop- living up to the promise of its proposition. We caught up with Pip Hulbert, the UK CEO of Wunderman Thompson to talk about her 10 years at the agency - five years leading the charge at the merged agency and five years, prior to that, as CEO Wunderman UK.
When Creative Salon meets Hulbert, she is reflecting not just on her decade at the agency, but has also brought along her client - Carolyn McKeever, group marketing director at Specsavers - to celebrate one of her most enduring relationships.
“There was a point to prove and it has been a very satisfying challenge,” she says of her time at Wunderman Thompson, pointing to the agency’s incredible pedigree and heritage and putting to rest any doubts that old school cynics might have had about the merger. In a market like the UK, which boasts an enviable reputation when it comes to creating world-class advertising, the spotlight (around the merger), she says, was that much sharper and harsher. “It wasn’t enjoyable reading the headlines at the time. But clients had been telling us they needed an agency partner with a fully integrated offering and Wunderman Thompson started with that vision. We organised ourselves around that vision by investing in talent and skill-sets and got a head start of five years (over the competition), and now we’re winning business for iconic brands and creating integrated campaigns that get people talking and benefit the bottom line.”
The agency built a revolutionary AI engine for BT Sport that could track hate in real time. It helped HSBC UK to spread the word about its ‘No Fixed Address’ bank account. It worked with Unilever to create the world’s first inclusive deodorant, Degree Inclusive, built with people with visual impairment and upper extremity impairment. Wunderman Thompson might have lost out its CRM and digital relationship with BT/EE to Digitas, but it made more than good with 18 wins last year. Seven of these were retained relationships, including Fanta (creative and strategy), Virgin Red (international creative and CRM) and Costa (UK integrated and global strategy). Most recently, home appliances brand Beko awarded the UK agency as its global brand strategy and creative partner following a competitive pitch. Wunderman Thompson now boasts of having one of the largest creative departments in the UK and alongside 110 creatives it brings together data, commerce, consulting, customer experience and technology services, to reframe clients’ business challenges. And all this without much grandstanding, earning Hulbert the reputation for “making things happen” adds McKeever.
Both Hulbert and McKeever first met in the 1990s, working agency side. McKeever’s been the group marketing director at Specsavers since January last year, joining from Shell where she was in various global marketing roles for more than seven years. Prior to Shell, she was in various marketing roles at Boots and Zurich Insurance and was in a client services role at Ogilvy One.
We begin by asking the eternal question of how to nurture the client-agency relationship. Wunderman Thompson is responsible for the digital business - the team that McKeever runs - for Specsavers. [This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Creative Salon: It's up to both clients and agencies to elevate the impact they have on each other. What makes an agency/client relationship great? What is so special about your relationship?
Pip Hulbert: From Boots to Shell to now Specsavers, Carolyn is someone I have always admired. Someone who knew what good work looked like, and also that best work comes from trust and respect when the client and the agency treat each other as equals. And she was always fun to be around. So I said to myself right at the start of knowing her, that's the person I need to hitch my waggon to. And although we went off and did different things but we kept on coming back together.
Carolyn McKeever: We both sort of started in the industry together. Agency side. But I had this six-year break in my career when I went away to have children. And when I came back into this world, there was not much choice out there. And there was a job at Boots that Pip asked me consider. It was not a role I would have considered when I was in my 20s, and here I was in my 40s. But Pip insisted I just need to take it. I did. And so glad I listened to her, because I found myself working for a brand that was run by strong women for women. And soon I was heading Boot's healthcare marketing. And it was a similar story at Shell - Pip was working with the client and it needed a marketing leader that could sort out its loyalty programme. And I ran that programme globally and again got the opportunity to work with Pip and Wunderman. When I landed this job at Specsavers I thought that now our professional partnership is over - it famously has its own internal very decorated in-house agency. I didn't imagine for a minute that I'd still be working with Wunderman Thompson and she said 'we do all of your digital,' which is the team that I now run.
For me, I'm committed to shared agendas with my agencies and that is what I have with Pip and her team.
CS: Congratulations on your 10th anniversary at the agency, Pip. Do you want to look back at the last decade? And what are you most excited about in the future?
Hulbert: I don't mind looking back. There was a lot of doubt about Wunderman Thompson but there was a point to prove. And we (the network) rose to that challenge. I quite like that challenge of proving someone wrong. much better than trying to prove yourself right. Also I was very confident of what we had set out to achieve. And we continue to deliver on that promise.
Here we are 2023, in an uncertain economic climate where clients are having to navigate constant change to achieve their growth goals and they need to work with partners that have an integrated offering. And that is what we focus on - building a consistent message across all marketing channels and taking a whole brand view. From our new business success to the brilliant work we do for our clients - we are doing it all. I don't believe that there is any other agency that has the breadth and depth of what we have to offer. The exciting bit will be continuing to leverage that breadth and depth in the right way. To do that in a world that will continue to be upended by technology. In the next five years, I'm looking forward to being a 'fast accelerator' partner for my clients in that environment. Clients just don't have the time to go looking for 20 agency partners for all their needs.
McKeever: We don't have the luxury of time. Just as much we are looking for efficiencies, we're also looking for the right creative solutions for the changing needs of our consumers.
For instance, it does feel like the last bastion of the High Street where people are coming into the shops to buy their glasses at a time when the technology for digitally-printed glasses already exists. Wunderman Thompson is very well placed to help us maintain our leading position in the market and move us into an omni channel environment where we become Specsavers 2.0 for customers who want more from us.
CS: In an era of clients’ desire for a more joined-up approach, and a growing appetite from holding groups to offer greater integration and encourage 'campus-working' how critical is it to maintain a level of differentiation as an agency brand?
McKeever: When I was at Shell (as the global head of downstream marketing comms), I ran the 'agency of the future' pitch process (in 2018). At the time Shell was working with a total roster of around 90 agencies around the world. But far too big for any one agency to take on. We asked the agencies pitching to assemble into groups, so that from pitch through to actually beginning the relationships, the agencies would be collaborating from the start. It was a brilliant way of seeing how you as a client would get the best off all the different pieces of the jigsaw in one place. WPP at the time did a brilliant job of putting a lot of agencies together and created an environment where it was more than about the right capabilities. It was about the right talent coming together, and that is most important to me as a client.
Hulbert: And it's about having the right culture. In order to attract the right talent. Wunderman Thompson that exists today has been more than the coming together of Wunderman and J Walter Thompson. We also absorbed Mirum and Prism. It matters less about the physicality of the four walls, but getting the culture right to allow us to focus on the work and the clients in the way we work now is very important.
We have taken the best of all of the agencies, the best of the people that have made us Wunderman Thompson today. There's been a lot of positives, but making into something that feels new and futuristic and energetic and gets everybody excited - now that is why I do what I do everyday.
Watch below a quick fire session with Hulbert and McKeever talking about what makes for an enduring client-agency relationship.