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BW Businessworld

The Sorrell I Knew

This is not the last time that the industry will hear of Sir Martin Sorrell, the man who knows how to fight his way to the top, comments

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If you’ve ever met Sir Martin Sorrell, you may well be feeling a sense of unreality reading the professional obituaries that have bloomed like spring daffodils since his inglorious exit from WPP. This, you will be thinking, cannot possibly be the end. Those words of Mark Twain will come to mind. We now know that there is no non-compete contract to restrain his next move. But apart from this, the 73-year-old still fizzes with the same ambition that he had at 40, when WPP became the vehicle to create a company very much in his own image — restless, unyielding, cut-throat, cunning, visionary, hard to love, aggressive and charming.

Martin is that person who always gets to the front of the line, waving his privilege card. And if beaten on airmiles by someone more travelled (unlikely), ‘Seat 1A’ will still somehow be secured — perhaps a schoolboy relationship with the flight captain might be uncovered and duly deployed or just sheer stubborn negotiation might win the day. It is said that Maurice Levy once pulled-out of a deal to acquire half share of an ad agency with Martin back in the 1980s. Martin furiously asked, why at the 11th hour the Frenchman had had such a change of heart. “Martin,” Levy replied, “I have come to realise that your 50 per cent will always be bigger than my 50 per cent”.

As you might now have guessed, I find Martin an extremely compelling personality.

After all the many assessments that have already been made, how to add anything new? Well, despite the hubris and the £1.5 bn that has fallen away from WPP’s recent value, most shareholders have done well (excluding the time when shares fell from 570p in 1987 to 50p in 1992...). Anyone investing after the 1992 tumult will have done better than the peer group. At the end of the day, shareholders have prospered.

Martin also leaves more media millionaires in his wake than all the other holding company CEOs combined, even after the bruising that many of them received during WPP’s notoriously feisty earn-out process.

In a world now dominated by concerns over conflicts of interest and transparency, Martin managed to pull off deals that brought Kantar, IBOPE, Millward Brown and even Taylor Nelson Sofres into the group — thus enabling WPP to become both trader and industry currency in one swoop.

For a while, Martin trounced the others in media, rightly realising that ‘following the money’ might be just as important as ‘following the client’. Furthermore, WPP’s array of investments such as AppNexus, VICE and Refinery29 were bold and visionary. Martin’s comments on the duopoly of Google and Facebook have also helped to frame an important and ongoing industry debate.

But, in my view, Martin’s major contribution was to force the industry to squeeze reluctantly into a globalising world,  building his WPP operations across 112 countries.
 
More than anyone else, Martin backed markets such as India, China and Brazil and greatly contributed to the development of their media economies and in schooling the local talent that will soon become the Global CEOs of tomorrow. While his American peers seemed reluctant to leave the leather-lined clubs of Madison Avenue, Martin got on his plane. Perhaps because he himself always felt like an ‘outsider’. Martin’s kinship with markets such as India and China translated into profitable businesses.

But perhaps the platform Martin built for himself and WPP could have been worked a little harder for more contemporary concerns. Martin had little to say, for example, on diversity and climate change. His remuneration of £200mn in the last five years alone was a distraction and played to all the obvious concerns around capitalism that brands are now trying to overcome in the drive to engage with younger audiences.

And this might offer a clue to the industry-wide interest in his departure. While Martin was able to orientate his rational brain to the new rules of technology and globalisation; the emotional brain stayed.

An unwillingness to sell the Kantar research business could have pitched personal emotion above shareholder value. The lack of a clear succession policy no doubt added to board concern. So, when a simple expenses issue was raised, and which could have easily been resolved, Martin may have acted like a proprietor and not shareholder — and the board decided to make an example of it.  

Maybe the lesson here — which is lived by the managers of Silicon Valley (and perhaps also why WPP chairman Roberto Quarta is now looking to the West Coast for a potential replacement) — is that the very personality of business has changed. The language, culture, sense of agility and the barriers of hierarchy have all shifted. A desire to make way for millennial mindsets, the willingness to share and a new informality was more of a distance than a septuagenarian financial genius could travel.

Sir Martin Sorrell won’t now become a trader in Copper Futures as he once joked he might. One suspects that the inevitable breaking-up of parts of the Group he built might be too unbearable for him, and compel him to acquire another corporate vehicle for yet another throw of the dice. I wouldn’t be surprised. Martin is two years younger than Mick Jagger, currently leading The Rolling Stones on another world tour. I don’t think ‘Seat 1A’ will be empty for too long.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Charlie Crowe

The writer is non-executive chairman of C Squared & founder of The Festival of Media

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