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VML global CEO Jon Cook on agency consolidation

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Jan 23, 2024
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Jon Cook. Illustration: Axios Visuals; Photo: Courtesy of VML

The longevity of VML can partly be attributed to embracing digital back in 1997, global CEO Jon Cook says — a decision made over BBQ. He dined with Kerry earlier this month for our "1 big meal" interview series.

Why it matters: Cook joined VML as the 28th employee in 1996 and was named CEO in 2011. WPP merged VML and Young & Rubicam in 2018, appointing him CEO of VMLY&R. Last year, WPP merged it with Wunderman Thompson. VML now has more than 30,000 employees.

🏈 Why we chose the restaurant: John Brown BBQ in Long Island City. Cook grew up and lives in Kansas City, and this is the best spot for that style BBQ. It was his first time, but his daughter has gone to watch Chiefs games.

🍖 What we ate: He ate a Philippe Deluxe Sandwich (pulled pork, Swiss cheese, no fries) and pork belly and drank a Diet Coke. I ate pork belly, chicken and some fries and drank water.

This interview was edited for clarity, style and length.

Were the reasons behind VML and Young & Rubicam consolidating different compared to VMLY&R and Wunderman?

  • "VML and Y&R and Wunderman and J. Walter Thompson [which also merged in 2018] both had an element of a big advertising agency ... coming to grips with what their relevancy was."
  • "J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam ... were in some level of decline with what their market position was. ... VML and Wunderman were both newer agencies, more digitally focused."
  • "The primary difference now was bringing strength and strength together ... immediately racing to this place that consultants and ad agencies are all trying to go, which is a combination of brand experience, customer experience and commerce."

What are the cons to these mergers?

  • "The challenge is if you have two different cultures you risk the combined culture not being as good or better than either the cultures were before. If you've come out with anything short of as good or better, than you've failed. ... The con can be [a] culture clash."

What are your 2024 priorities?

  • The main priority is getting our client partners surrounded with the new weaponry. We shared 80% of each of our top 20 clients — Colgate-Palmolive, Ford, Microsoft, Dell — so we've just been making sure, No. 1, that their business as usual is in a good place ... and we're being additive."

Do you expect more consolidation and M&A?

  • "I wouldn't predict any more major merging for VML. ... What I could predict is smaller parts of WPP, as WPP looks to get simpler, that need a better home."
  • "One thing we don't need is a geographic acquisition. We got the world covered. ... What I could see is performance marketing, artificial intelligence, commerce, experiential."

🏈 1 fun fact: Cook is a regular attendee of Chiefs games. This season, he has gone twice to Arrowhead Stadium, once to MetLife Stadium and once to Lambeau Field.

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