The abdication of King Sorrell leaves WPP at a crossroads

  PHOTO OF THE ARCHIVE: Sir Martin Sorrell, president and CEO of the advertising company WPP, attends a conference at the Cannes Lions Festival in Cannes, France, June 23, 2017. REUTERS / Eric Gaillard / File Photo
ABFILE PHOTO: Sir Martin Sorrell, president and CEO of the advertising company WPP, attends a conference at the Cannes Lions Festival in Cannes

Thomson Reuters

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) – The sudden departure of Martin Sorrell from WPP marks a shocking end to the career of an executive director who, by sheer force of personality, turned it into the world's largest advertising firm. .

WPP said in early April that it had appointed lawyers to investigate the allegation of a whistleblower allegation against Sorrell, who for 33 years turned a two-man team into one of the largest companies in Great Britain present in 112 countries

The 73-year-old man said on Saturday he was retiring, starting at a crucial moment for WPP, which has seen its price drop 30 percent this year due to lower customer spending, contract losses and a growing threat of Google and Facebook.

"I will miss you so much," he wrote in an email to the staff. "As a founder, I can say that WPP is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that."

WPP did not give any details of the accusation and Sorrell denied the charges, initially saying that he understood the need to investigate. However, when the matter came to the Wall Street Journal, he told his friends that he believed he was being used as a weapon to expel him, a source said.

A rival former CEO and current CEO told Reuters last week that the fact that Sorrell was under investigation showed how the dynamics within WPP had changed.

"For me, it is not about whether he did something wrong, but about three years ago the board would not have followed this path," said the former CEO. "Martin was all-powerful and WPP without Martin was not worth thinking about."


Son of an electronics retailer who was educated at the University of Cambridge, Sorrell made his name as financial director of the new British agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

He took center stage in 1985, buying a stake in a small manufacturing company, Wire and Plastic Products Plc, to use it as a public vehicle to buy communications groups around the world.

In a few years he had sealed a series of acquisitions, buying such legendary creative agencies as J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy before moving on to the source of cash planning and media buying creating the M Group. Market research companies and public relations groups such as Finsbury followed.

Known for his fierce work ethic and attention to microscopic detail, Sorrell formed the group by aggressively launching for the job, often directing the load himself and going over the heads of marketing to deal directly with their bosses.

The paper meant that Sorrell became an authority not only in advertising but also in the global economy and a voice always present in the media and in events like Davos.

Respected by his peers, however, they showed little affection in the ego-driven advertising business and sometimes labeled him a "beancounter" because of his financial experience rather than his publicity.

David Ogilvy referred to Sorrell as a "hateful little idiot" when the CEO of WPP tried to buy his company. The two advertisers were reconciled later and Sorrell signed the annual WPP report that year as "OLJ".

"It's so brutally competitive," said the former CEO. "He is a great competitor and can get so angry when he loses."

Many executives tell stories that the chief executive personally suffered contract losses, including one that told Reuters how Sorrell had shared a one-hour car trip in complete silence after his rival mentioned an account he had recently won of WPP.

Sorrell repeatedly faced the former boss of French rival Publicis, Maurice Levy, and enjoyed pointing out to journalists the flaws of his rivals.

However, his combative style earned the respect of the senior staff who worked for him. A New York-based executive told Reuters how, on a night out, senior executives would send emails to Sorrell at exactly the same time to see who he would respond to first.

"He has an amazing understanding of the details if you consider the scale of the company," said another executive who met Sorrell professionally for many decades. "It's practically a show."

The success also brought great wealth for the father of four children, and the executive with permanent tanning gained around 200 million pounds in the last five years due to a bonus scheme linked to performance that angered many shareholders.


CEOs and executives, who asked not to be named, lamented that Sorrell did not have the opportunity to reposition WPP, which in March posted its weakest results since the financial crisis.

Whoever takes charge will have to decide if the group of 200,000 people should remain in their current form.

Having managed the agencies as separate companies for years to stimulate competition, WPP had begun to break down barriers to appease customers who found it difficult to manage and inadequate for the digital age where customers could create their own content and place it directly on Google. and Facebook.

Brian Wieser, advertising badyst at Pivotal Research, said that WPP had the right badets, but had not packaged them properly in recent years and the fact that it was more fragmented than Omnicom and Publicis meant that it was now more difficult to reposition it.

The initial task will fall on President Roberto Quarta, who described Sorrell as the "driving force" behind WPP, and executives Mark Read and Andrew Scott, who will be the joint operating directors, while the company seeks a new CEO

Sorrell told the staff that WPP had gone through difficult times before and would do it again, saying it would be available to anyone who wanted advice.

"For the past 33 years, I've spent every day thinking about the future of WPP," he said. "Good luck and good luck to all of you, now, back to the future."

(Edition of Alexander Smith)

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