Presenting your agency figures to Sir Martin Sorrell was a nerve-wracking experience. The man was incredible. Without any briefing notes he would remember the numbers you presented last year and more importantly the forecasts you had made. He knew your clients and understood their business issues – and he could repeat this trick in every single agency presentation, anywhere in the world. He put you under pressure and had a keen eye for bullshit. It was a tough upbringing, but he made me a better business person.
Some will argue that advertising isn’t the type of business that should be reduced to a Sorrellian focus on compensation percentages and profit margins. They see him as the epitome of a ‘bean counter’ mindset that has put profit before creativity.
But Sorrell cannot be blamed for what appears to be the creative decline of the advertising industry. if anything, he helped delay its demise. He saw the emergence of a new breed of client, demanding financial accountability and procurement-driven efficiency. He recognised the threat posed by Google and Facebook (he described them as ‘frenemies’) and the difficulties that a heavily analogue creative model would face in a digital age. His desire to transform the often unprofessional, unfocused and uncommercial world of marketing services was not the action of a Philistine, but a defensive move against the threats posed by the traditional consultancy firms and an ever more capable and confident client.
With his departure the industry loses one of the few people with the intellect, profile and connections to make the case for advertising and the importance of longer-term investments in brand building. He may have started-out as a typical financial wheeler-dealer – buying underperforming agency brands with high levels of debt and squeezing their balance sheets - but the accountant gradually became a ‘Mad Man’. He realised that his role as CEO for the world’s largest marketing services group gave him unique access to the ‘movers and shakers’. He was one of the few WPP employees that had a chance of getting into the boardrooms of the world’s largest companies and he used this access wisely. He was a vocal critic of the lack of transparency and accountability in digital media and in what we now know was his last results presentation, he railed against ‘zero-based budgeting’ driven by short-term, activist investors. The fact that few of us can even recall the names of the people heading the other advertising agency groups is an indication of the gap left by his departure.
One task he failed to complete was the transformation of the holding company model. Over the past few years, more business has been handled through some form of multi-team unit (with a single P&L), but WPP remains characterised by its plethora of agency brands. This may have been intended to create a healthy level of competition and to prevent the performance of weaker agencies being masked by the stronger ones, but it discouraged collaboration and fostered unhealthy rivalries - even Sorrell used the term ‘tribes’ to describe the thousands of agencies in his group. It will be interesting to see whether his successor will continue to build the WPP brand as a rival to the global consultancy businesses, or simply bow to investor pressure and break-up the group.
His departure was undignified and will have hurt a very proud man, but the advertising industry has lost one of its few giants.
About the author
Martin is a highly experienced marketing communications consultant, trainer and author. He is course leader on digital and social media for the Institute of Directors UK. He has enjoyed a highly successful career in advertising, PR, sponsorship and new media, including senior management roles with some of the world’s leading agencies.
He has advised many multi-national corporations on their marketing and communications strategies, including Xerox, Citibank, Bacardi Global Brands, Sony Ericsson, Royal Mail, Coca-Cola and Colgate-Palmolive. Much of his work in recent years has focused on the business response to new, digitally-empowered patterns of customer behaviour and changing expectations: a subject on which he has become a highly-regarded writer, speaker and commentator.