Mark Read was elevated to cochief operating officer in April.
WPP PLC executive Mark Read has emerged as the leading contender to become chief executive of the advertising giant, according to people familiar with the matter, following the departure of founder Martin Sorrell.
Ad industry veteran and former WPP executive Hamish McLennan, another top candidate, is no longer in the running, the people said.
Mr. Read is a longtime WPP executive who was elevated to the role of co-chief operating officer in April when Mr. Sorrell left the company.
“No decision has been taken yet on the appointment of the new CEO and no announcement is expected imminently,” a WPP spokesman said.
Mr. Read, 51 years old, would inherit a company struggling to boost growth as it faces increased pressure from clients and upheaval from the dominance of Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google in digital advertising. Marketers are cutting back on the fees they pay agencies, hitting WPP and other ad holding companies. Consulting firms, meanwhile, are increasingly encroaching on Madison Avenue's turf.
Mr. Sorrell spent decades building WPP, whose headquarters is in London, into the world's biggest ad company by acquiring advertising agencies across the globe.
Word that WPP was considering outsiders as the new CEO stirred fears internally that the ad giant was facing a major shake-up, according to WPP executives. Mr. Read, by contrast, is expected to retrofit — rather than discard — WPP's business model for the digital age.
In April, Mr. Sorrell resigned as chief executive after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company's board was looking into an allegation of improper personal behavior and whether Mr. Sorrell had misused company assets. Mr. Sorrell rejected the allegation “unreservedly.”
He has also more broadly denied any wrongdoing. The 73-year-old executive, who still owns 2% of WPP, has created a rival ad firm that this month outbid WPP for Netherlands-based digital agency MediaMonks.
WPP Chairman Roberto Quarta said the CEO search has been “challenging” for a public company in the U.K., where remuneration is typically lower than in the U.S. and it is tougher to attract top talent. WPP also reduced CEO compensation after it was repeatedly criticized by shareholders for handing Mr. Sorrell some of the ad industry's biggest payouts.
WPP reached out to several outside candidates, including Mr. McLennan and Tim Armstrong, who runs Verizon Communications Inc.'s Oath internet business, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Armstrong declined to participate in the contest, according to a person familiar with the matter.
WPP's board heard presentations from CEO candidates last week, according to people familiar with the matter. Among those making presentations was Mr. McLennan, who once ran Young & Rubicam, one of WPP's ad agencies.
Investors are counting on WPP's new chief executive to steady the company while also charting a new course. Clients such as Ford Motor Co., Unilever PLC and Procter & Gamble Co. have been cutting back on fees they pay for ad services. Some have also been producing more marketing in-house to save money and give themselves greater creative control.
Investors expect WPP to cut costs by ending the practice of allowing agencies to operate like independent fiefdoms, duplicating services as they competed against each other.
“When we talk with clients, they want us to work together, not to work apart,” Mr. Read said in an interview in June.
BY NICK KOSTOV AND SUZANNE VRANICA