The Token Man: WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell talks to The Drum's Diane Young about the chances of his successor being a woman

WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell tells The Drum's managing director Diane Young why the odds are still against his eventual successor being a woman, in the latest of a series of gender diversity interviews conducted by prominent women from across the marketing industries.

The below is a light edit of the conversation between Sir Martin Sorrell and Diane Young. For their entire conversation, see the video above.

Diane Young: You’ve got a well-developed diversity programme at WPP…

Sir Martin Sorrell: Probably not well-developed enough. I mean it’s a diversity programme but it hasn’t achieved the metrics, for want of a better word, that we’d like to achieve – namely 50/50 [gender split] or I think technically it might be in favour of women, more than 50/50, but across the whole company.

Overall we’re sort of 50/50. At lower levels and middle levels we hold that 50/50 ratio, or a little bit more actually. But at senior level, so-called, it drops down to about a third. And so the objective is to try and get it to 50/50 – equal opportunity for all. But we haven’t achieved that yet despite what we’ve done in terms of diversity programmes, which have been quite good.

I think women are better in our industry, not necessarily everywhere, but I think they are better in many areas. They’re better at organising their time for all sorts of reasons which you can understand. Emotionally, they are better. Male clients are probably a little more respectful of women. Terrible thing to say, but I said it.

DY: In a speech earlier this year at an all-female event, you mentioned that you thought women should be more aggressive

MS: Assertive. Other people have said it should be assertive. I’ll stick with aggressive.

DY: Do you think talking about these issues is a bit of a minefield in itself? That actually when you’re trying to be supportive and give advice it’s taken out of context?

MS: Some women in that audience didn’t like that. In fact, one woman wrote to me and said that. If it draws attention to the issue, I don’t think it’s a problem. That has been a little ripple, because we can’t cause a tsunami, but that’s caused a little ripple that people have focused on. At the end of the day it's probably a good thing because at least it stirs the debate and the controversy. It’s one of the ways of getting the whole set of issues a higher profile and I think that’s probably to the good.

DY: I’ve noticed over the last while that the female agenda is becoming more and more organised, it’s coming much more to the front. Do you think that is going to be at the cost of discussion around other kinds of diversity in our business?

MS: It may cause an impact on other ethnic issues, gay issues. It may do. But I think, on balance, it probably stimulates the primary demand, if I can put it that way, for all issues of diversity. The fact that you’re focusing on women doesn’t mean that you don’t think about Afro-American women, or Asian women, or Hispanic women, or gay women. Focusing on that issue, and it’s probably in volume terms, the biggest issue, is probably the right thing to do. And I don’t think it deflects; it probably stimulates people to think about the diversity issue but stimulates the overall. I think on balance it’s probably good.

DY: I wanted to get your views on positive discrimination and quotas. If quotas were introduced by the government how would you feel about that?

MS: I don’t think that’s the way of achieving it. I don’t think it should be achieved by law. It should be achieved by us implementing it, setting targets and agreeing where we’ve got to get to and meeting those targets.

Like any sustainability area, doing good is good business. If you don't tap the half of the population that happens to be female, you’re going to suffer, if you do tap them you’ll probably benefit – particularly if they’re even better than men at doing the job. I guess I’m in danger of being discriminatory in saying that, but you get my drift.

I don’t think quotas are the answer. There should be guidance. Policy should be around these areas. But we should be left to get on with it.

DY: With a long way to go in certain parts of the industry, particularly in the creative side of things where women are very underrepresented at the top…

MS: I’m not sure that’s true… it depends on what area of the business you’re talking about. I'm not sure that's as true for digital, or public relations, or market research, I think that’s probably a little bit unfair but you may be suffering a little bit from the Don Draper definition of creativity, or using that word, because creative doesn’t begin with me and end with me in creative TV departments.

So I think it's a little bit unfair, but maybe you’re right in the creative departments of advertising agencies. But the business is not like that anymore. Of our $20bn of revenue, it’s about $4bn. Media is $5bn, data is $5bn and digital is $6bn. So the stuff that Don Draper and you’re focusing on is the $4bn. Let’s get the 75 per cent sorted and then maybe the other 25 will look after themselves. But if you're talking about traditional creative departments in ad agencies, maybe you're right, but not in what used to be called direct, or interactive, or digital.

DY: I’d like to ask you about a different kind of diversity now. You don’t see a lot of people in their seventies in our industry…

MS: [Laughing] He’s over 70. To the glue factory with him!

DY: Does our industry either throw out or burn out people when they get older?

MS: If you look at John Wren I think is in his sixties, Maurice Lévy is older than me, Michael Roth is between John Wren and myself, Yannick Bolloré is lower, the Japanese leader is probably the same age – maybe a little bit younger – than Maurice, so if you look at the leaders they are sort of greying men, I guess. They are all men, too. There is no women. Maybe there will be, who knows.

DY: What do you think the chances are that a woman will take over from you?

MS: If you say two thirds, one third, it’s two to one isn’t it? So the probability is lower than 50/50. Tamara Ingram is our chief client officer, you’ve got people like Donna [Imperato, chief executive, Cohn & Wolfe] or Lindsey [Pattison, chief executive, Maxus] who are running businesses. But the probability, if we’re honest about it, is less than 50/50, which is what it should be. If you look at external candidates probably the probability is even lower.

In all honesty, to end this on a depressing note, it's what you would expect. Now, maybe when we’ve got everybody up to 50/50 levels across the whole group, the probability will be better.

DY: When do you think that will be?

MS: When I’m long gone [laughing]. When I’m in the glue factory.

Token Man is an initiative from the founder of Creative Social, Daniele Fiandaca. Previous interviews have included Tribal Worldwide's Allan Blair in conversation with Bima's Bridget Beale, and a Q&A between Geometry Global's Georgia Barretta and Nils Leonard of Grey London.

The Drum has been exploring the issue of diversity in marketing in more depth through its Diversity Census, which takes the measure of the industry's attitudes on issues including gender equality, parental leave, cultural sensitivity and work/life balance. Follow this link to receive a free digital copy of the Diversity Census upon its release.

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