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Read writes last page of his succession plan

FROM travelling the globe with Alan Bond to building Perth’s largest advertising agency, Howard Read has enjoyed an interesting and varied career.

In his role as group marketing manager at Bond Corp (circa 1970), Mr Read enjoyed long lunches and lots of travel, and signed some sizeable deals along the way.

And while some things changed when he joined Marketforce as general manager in 1978, there were plenty of major contracts negotiated.

But Mr Read has decided the time’s ripe for another change, with a date for his departure as chairman of Perth’s largest advertising agency to be announced soon.

In the meantime, Mr Read has been fostering a successor, John Driscoll, who is currently Marketforce group managing director.

“We’re getting closer to setting a date for me to leave. I don’t want to be the old fart in the corner office. I know that and John knows that. He is the new breed,” Mr Read told WA Business News.

But for now Mr Read will continue to build the business in a market that’s very different to the one he joined more than 25 years ago.

“It [advertising] used to be a lot less strategic,” Mr Read said.

“The business depended on big ideas and there was less accountability and less segmentation … and a lot more lunches.

“Where did it go? The margins have come down. One impact is the collapse of businesses from 1987 onwards that exposed the lack of corporate governance and caused shareholders to bring boards into line.

“Globalisation and rationalisation has meant that the market has shrunk. There are less agencies and less clients.”

In the 25 years of Mr Read’s involvement with Marketforce the business has grown from a staff of 27 people and annual billings of $4 million to 110 staff and billings of $150 million a year.

“In total billings we are the biggest in Perth,” Mr Read said.

He said that, even without its government media buying arm, Media Decisions’, billings of about $40 million, the company still “out billed” other agencies in Perth.

“We believe billings will grow,” Mr Read said.

The main growth would come from its branch of advertising related services, he said, which included 2D and 3D design, and its strategic planning division.

“We want to be number one in strategy, creativity, in design work, in service. To do that we have to employ better people,” Mr Read said.

“An example of that is this New Zealand fellow, Andrew Tinney, that is a serious investment and it’s one that will deliver better service.”

Mr Tinney joins Marketforce from Saatchi and Saatchi NZ this month, taking up the position of creative director.

“We have got a greater level of intellect within the business. The sort of people that we now employ are streets ahead of what we had years ago,” Mr Read said.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride to the top, with the failure of the group’s expansion into the eastern States an important lesson.

“At the beginning of the nineties we had some tough times. They were the result of the expansion and buying offices on the east coast and we made a few bad decisions,” Mr Read said.  “It’s very difficult to buy agencies and then butt them together with the egos and cultures involved.”

Getting to the top has required good recruitment and planning, he said.

“We make sure we keep clients informed along the way and clients accept that change will happen and often it’s quite good.

“But you need succession planning.”

Mr Read said that, while the industry was more stable than it was a decade ago, it was still consolidating.

“Media costs are going up and clients are being smarter about what they do,” he said. 

“There is not a lot of room for middle ground. There is not much business around and you have better selling tools if you have something like size, client expertise or personalised service, but it doesn’t mean the guys in the middle can’t do it.”

Fighting for the industry’s creative turf is something the Perth Advertising and Design Club patron is keen to promote.

“I am passionate about the creative product and it being the cornerstone of the business,” Mr Read said.

“We have to own creativity and that is in the interest of the agency and the industry. That is an area that chartered accountants can’t touch.

“I am a patron of the PADC to assist the creative end of the business and I’ve helped because we have to fight for and maintain creativity, which is up there so much as the creativity in housing or tourism.”

And it is moves from some in accounting that are causing Mr Read the most concern.

“I heard of one chartered accountant setting up an advertising agency – they want to do everything. We need to acknowledge, reward and promote creativity in the industry.”

The PADC awarded Mr Read with life membership at its awards presentation late last year.

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