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Sir Martin Sorrell: ‘the definition of creativity needs to change – we’re not in the advertising business anymore’

WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell has hit back at claims that data inhibits creativity, arguing that it’s no longer enough to rely on the skills of a bygone era to concoct effective content.

It’s why advertising needs a rebrand, he argued at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit, before telling delegates “we’re not in the advertising business anymore”.

The statement alludes to the soul-searching undertaken by many advertisers, agencies and publishers now as their ads flounder in a sea of content online. Some like BBH co-founder Sir John Hegarty believe a reliance on data is partly to blame for the industry’s struggles and urged for a return to the days when advertising was the domain of the creative agency rather than the fragmented process it has now become. However, Sir Martin, who is currently amassing a major data-driven marketing service through WPP’s Xaxis business, said the marriage of data and creativity is critical.

“If you are given some data that helps you understand what the consumer is thinking about in either a practical, psychological or emotional basis then you’re going to come up with more stimulation,” he continued. “75 per cent of what we [WPP] do now, Don Draper and maybe even Sir John Hegarty wouldn’t recognise."

WPP’s ability to offer that mix of services is being challenged by the rise of companies focused on short-term goals. This spread of “short-termism” as Sir Martin calls it, has been spurred by an economical slowdown that has given rise to disruptors such as Uber, cost-cutting practices and more acquisitions and mergers.

“In that cocktail it’s very tough to grow your top line and you have to contain your costs… companies are pulling in their horns and becoming very risk averse.”