5 Questions with Sanja Partalo, VP of Digital, WPP



We sat down with the Vice President of Digital at WPP for some fresh insights on navigating the modern market.


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Keeping up with consumer behavior and platform evolutions is no small feat. One company astutely aware of this is WPP. At SMWNYC, the company’s VP of Digital, Sanja Partalo, joins a panel featuring execs from Doner and 360i, and moderated by newly-appointed Campaign US editor, Lindsay Stein.

Ahead of the session, we sat down with Sanja to learn more about her role at WPP and which major trends she thinks marketers should have on the brain in 2018.

SMW: Tell us a little about about your role at WPP.

SP: As Vice President of Digital, I am responsible for developing our group’s corporate digital strategy and capabilities, through a combination of strategic investments, acquisitions, and partnerships. In its broad remit, it’s a role reflective of today’s dynamic environment and is indicative of how we are navigating it at WPP.

Previously, you could execute vast majority of your strategic priorities internally, through developing capabilities or acquiring them, something WPP is particularly strong at and has a deep expertise in. Someone in my role would have spent their time thinking through the capabilities required to future-proof our business and how we go about doing that. We continue to do this. But we also have two additional levers that are key to maintaining our leadership position.

Primarily, we make strategic investments in emerging media and technology and we work to integrate them with our operating companies. For example, WPP’s investment portfolio includes AppNexus, VICE, and Gimlet, among others, and notable exits such as Buddy Media and Fullscreen) Secondly, we develop differentiated partnerships with the platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon in order to drive competitive advantages. In plain terms, our strategy is to invest in and integrate what’s next, and win with the winners.

SMW: In your role you must see a lot of interesting tools, technologies, and platforms come across your desk. What are some of the macro-trends you’re observing specific to the marketing/ad world?

SP: Recently, I’ve taken notice of three particular macro-trends.

Trend 1: Everyone still cares about where the eyeballs are going next., that is, where the consumer attention is most focused. This is why we see so many content companies emerge and do well, despite the fact that one could argue there is nothing particularly cutting edge about creating a digital media company that talks to consumers via .com and social. Yet, there are notable success stories in this space.

Trend 2: Marketers, particularly in the CPG space, are desperate to get closer to their consumer—without Amazon, if at all possible. Most of them are overly reliant on distribution channels that are not faring well in today’s ‘retail apocalypse’ environment (by recent estimates, we’ll see 12,000 stores close their doors in 2018). So, you see a lot of startups do well if they can position their tools and tech as the in-between solution. Just look at companies like Smart Commerce, Get Cargo, Brand Commerce—or an easy e-commerce capability—companies like MikMak.

Trend 3: Marketers are in love with how ‘affordable’ programmatic is, despite all of the issues raised in the headlines. Though not very sexy, tools and tech that address viewability and brand safety issues are very relevant and seeing traction.

SMW: It seems as though the headlines these days are dominated by the misuse of digital platforms. Are you optimistic that these tools can be used as a force for good in society?

SP: This is a tough one to answer because it seems like every other month there is yet another problematic finding. Last year, for instance, it was YouTube, this year it seems to be Facebook. To be completely honest, if I take my work hat off, I don’t feel overly optimistic in this moment.

At the same time, however, I do believe digital platforms have done a lot of good in the sense that they make information more accessible and lower the cost of entry for small businesses and entrepreneurs to compete with the giants. On the flip side of this, they have not owned the potential downfalls including the creation of echo chambers, the the spread of misinformation and enabling a lack of transparency.. When they do get involved, they are reactive, not proactive. Given their size, reach, and resources, we ought to ask them to take meaningful responsibility and they ought to say yes.

Right now, brands have their hands full when it comes to ensuring they’re getting what they paid for. My personal projection is that it will be another year before any of our clients have the luxury of thinking, en masse, about how to use these platforms as a force for good in society.

SMW: What is one piece of advice you’d give for tools or technologies vying to get on WPP’s radar? What kinds of things is the company most excited about heading into 2018?

SP: Make sure your offering is scalable—or at least, you’ve thought about how you would scale. Very often, I get approached by startups who can execute a very exciting, innovative XYZ that can reach a very limited audience or has a limited output. The set up of their tools/tech/platform is so that even with additional capital, we can only increase reach or output by 20 percent or so. An offering like that is not meaningful to us because the majority of our client base is comprised of global, Fortune 500 brands. It’s very hard for us to meaningful consider a solution that isn’t scalable in nature.

In 2018, we are excited about a variety of new formats. For example, Snap has desensitized consumers to augmented reality and a number of players are building those units outside of Snap’s universe. Take for example, me scrolling within an app and I happen to stumble across an ad for lipstick. I see my own face in the ad, I ‘try’ the lipstick color on, and finally, click to add the item to my cart, all in the same ad unit. Early research points to high consumer engagement metrics for these types of ads, and we’re excited to experiment in this capacity.

We’re also very bullish on podcasts. We recently invested in Gimlet because we were impressed by the quality of their content, engagement of their audience, and their ‘hard to reach’ characteristics. Most advertisers are still in the early stages of meaningfully considering this medium, and there is a lot of potential for growth.

Don’t miss Sanja’s session at SMWNYC (April 24-27) and many others that will explore the ways to effectively adapt your business for the years ahead. Grab your pass today.

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