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What it takes to get a senior role in WPP

Jean-Michel Wu is the regional talent director for WPP Asia Pacific and has been with the company for more than a decade. He is responsible for executive recruiting and talent initiatives across WPP’s operating companies in Asia Pacific and also oversees the group’s fellowship programme in the region.

Wu speaks about his role in the company and what he looks out for when making senior level hires.

How do you align your talent strategy with WPP’s overall business strategy?
In terms of our business strategy and our people strategy, WPP exists to develop and manage talent, and apply that talent throughout the world for the benefit of clients, to do so in partnership and to do so with profit. That’s what we’re trying to align ourselves with. First and foremost, our business is people, and we try to make sure that there’s a balance between great creative work and fantastic account servicing people.

In this industry, what do you think are the biggest talent challenges in the region?
There’s definitely a scarcity of people who would like to come into this industry. For years, other industries have been better at advertising themselves to junior staff and universities than we have as an industry. We’ve just gone down the pecking order with university students who would much rather work in professional services or an IT company. That means the actual overall talent we had has been harder to find. We are trying to fight back, and one of the ways is with WPP’s fellowship programme.

This programme has been reported to have a smaller admission rate than Harvard University.
We have eight people a year globally who get into this programme, out of more than 2,000 applicants. I’m really proud to say that we’ve hired two from Singapore in the last year, and we’ll have another two in China next year. The programme, which is a three-year course with a one-year rotation, is one of our strongest assets.

How does WPP select who gets into the programme?

The actual selection process is incredibly tough. One of the prerequisites is us asking ourselves, “if we’re stuck on a plane sitting next to somebody for six hours, would we want this person sitting next to us?” We have our old fellows who have been through the process themselves to select the applicants first and to whittle down the selection into a manageable amount so we can go into the second round, which is held in each of the countries at a local level. Once we’ve identified one or two from each country, we then invite them to come to London and do a two-day assessment with our senior WPP people. But after the three years, there’s no guarantee they will stay on at WPP – although more often than not, they do.

How is the programme structured?

It’s up to the candidate where they want to go. They might start in London at an advertising agency, and then they could move to Shanghai and do something in public relations, and at the end of the programme, there’s no open offer – they have to go out and actually find a job within the group. The retention rate has been very high, and it’s been high because the graduates are very smart in understanding the relationships they build within WPP are at the highest level.

How would you describe a WPP fellow?

They are not only smart, curious, but they’re also interesting and interested. They seem to be able to suck up as much information as possible, but also are interesting themselves and can tell you about things that are happening around the world.

How different is the recruitment strategy when it comes to hiring senior management executives?
There are different levels of recruitment in companies, and we very much position ourselves at the top – how you recruit people at that level is very, very different from how you’d do it at the mid or bottom level.

What helps?
The tools are very important, which includes a database which contains all the senior people across the entire group. We also use LinkedIn extensively and a programme called Jobvite, all of which allows us to contact everybody we need to. But the most important thing we do is create a human element – a personal relationship – with each one of our candidates. It’s not something that a recruitment tool can do. That human element is a lot more important at a senior level.

Do you think that’s the mindset of a lot of senior recruiters?
Senior headhunters often take the stance that they’ve had a career before in whatever industry they’re in because they can then transition into becoming a recruiter in that one market. I think that’s fine, but I think you also need to be a good practitioner at what you do, and be passionate about doing good recruitment, rather than just recruiting.

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