News that WPP is investigating Sir Martin Sorrell following an “allegation of personal misconduct” has reignited speculation over who will eventually succeed him at the helm of the world’s largest advertising business.
Sorrell, 73, is the longest-serving chief executive of any company in the FTSE 100 having held his post since 1985. Prominent in the media and often outspoken, he is one of the few advertising bosses people outside the industry would recognise and his unusually high profile means WPP’s fortunes have been inextricably linked to Sorrell’s own public persona. Shares in the company dipped more than 3% in early trading this morning (4 April) on the back of overnight reports about the investigation.
Irrespective of current events – Sorrell denies any wrongdoing – the question of who should succeed such an indomitable figure, and the company’s readiness for that eventuality, had already been among the thorniest subjects facing WPP in recent years. In its 2016 annual report, WPP said succession planning was underway and a pool of internal and external candidates had been identified. “The founder CEO has over 30 years’ service with the company and is identified with the success of the group’s strategy and a failure to plan for his succession could impact investor confidence in the company,” it acknowledged.
Since then, there have been scant official updates from the marcomms group about its succession strategy and its 2017 preliminary results report, published in March, offered no more than a cursory rehashing of what had already been said. This vacuum has been filled with considerable industry speculation about who might eventually take over the biggest job in agency land. Here we look at some of the most credible contenders – and a couple of outsiders – from the names most frequently whispered.
Mark Read, global chief executive, Wunderman
Read has been tipped as the current favourite for the big chair by well-placed industry sources. He was appointed global chief executive of Wunderman in February 2015 after 12 years at parent WPP, including nine as the holding company’s executive director, so has extensive knowledge of the firm’s inner workings and challenges. As the man who has spearheaded WPP’s digital transformation, Read would appear to have the credentials to take the reins at a business undergoing intense internal reorganisation and looks well-suited for an age when consultancies like of Accenture and co are parking their tanks on agencies’ turf.
Despite public acclaim (including two Dadi Digital Individual of the Year awards in the last five years and Wired ranking him as one of the top 25 digital influencers in Europe in 2014), Read has a lower profile than some of his counterparts and is much more measured in handling the media than his boss. Whether he would relish taking on the exhaustive public responsibilities, not to mention the scrutiny, that being the head of WPP would demand remains to be seen.
Lindsay Pattison, chief transformation officer, WPP
As the first chief transformation officer at WPP, Pattison is currently overseeing one of the most pivotal projects in the organisation’s recent history – the task of reshaping it for the future. After a 2017 that Sorrell admitted was “not pretty” financially for the ad giant, the company is accelerating its plan of consolidating its agencies and services and it is Pattison, who has been with WPP since joining its old media shop Maxus in 2009, that has been cherry-picked for the role.
Pattison’s appointment to such a crucial position in May 2017, after almost four years as chief executive of Maxus, exemplifies her standing within the group. Smooth management of the challenging job at hand and an improvement in WPP’s bottom line as a result would inevitably put her in the frame for the CEO role whenever it becomes vacant. The former Wacl president, a prominent voice in the campaign for greater diversity in advertising, would be a popular choice among her industry peers.
Karen Blackett, UK country manager, WPP
Like Pattison, Blackett is also working on WPP’s consolidation plan (or “horizontality” in Sorrell speak) in another newly created role as the company’s first UK country manager, which she took on in January. In a 25-year media career, she has risen to the top of the agency business, serving as chief executive of WPP’s MediaCom for five years until January 2016, when she moved into the role of chairwoman.
Blackett arguably has the highest public profile of anyone on this list and has been garlanded with awards and praise in recent years, including an OBE in June 2014, becoming the first businesswoman to top 2015’s Powerlist 100, which champions the most influential black people in Britain, and a place among among Marie Claire's top 10 inspirational women the same year. Perhaps only a relative lack of group-wide experience stands in her way at a time when WPP’s buzzword du jour is horizontality.
Blackett or Pattison taking the top job would represent a boost for gender equality at an organisation that last month reported a 14.6% gender pay gap and is top-heavy with men in executive roles. When pushed on whether the next chief executive officer of WPP is "likely to be a woman" at Advertising Week in March, Sorrell answered: "It is possible, not likely, but possible..."
Johnny Hornby, chairman and chief executive, The&Partnership
Not that long ago, The&Partnership chief executive was considered the man most likely to succeed Sorrell. His stock was so high, in fact, that in November 2016 The Times ran a flattering profile headlined: “Is this the man destined to take over Sorrell’s train set at WPP?” In that article, Hornby demonstrated the penchant for candour that has seen him draw natural comparisons to Sorrell but used it to play down the likelihood of taking over. “Who wants to be David Moyes?” he said in reference to the football manager who disastrously succeeded stalwart Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. “If I took over, I wonder if Martin would sit in the stands scowling at me. He probably would.”
Along with his bullishness, Hornby also shares Sorrell’s entrepreneurial nature. His success with 2001 startup CHI&Partners encouraged WPP to take a 49.9% stake in the agency in 2015 and gave Hornby the impetus to start his own mini holding group as The&Partnership. His frankness is refreshing and he would appear to be well-suited to the public requirements of the role, but WPP may prefer a change of pace post-Sorrell and rumours linking him to the position have softened.
The outsiders (in every sense)
Agency groups generally look from within for the biggest management roles, so it would be a surprise if WPP didn’t follow the lead of Publicis – which itself was long dogged with succession questions before anointing Arthur Sadoun as the new Maurice Levy in 2017 – and make an internal promotion. That said, WPP has hinted that external candidates will be considered and some prominent names from the worlds of media and marketing have been linked with the post.
Among the most intriguing, the former ITV boss Adam Crozier was once mentioned in the same breath as WPP but has since taken on the chairmanship of Costa Coffee and Premier Inn owner Whitbread. Then there’s Keith Weed (pictured), the Unilever chief marketing officer, who would be linked to any major marketing role but is unlikely to view a move from the world’s second biggest advertiser to the world’s biggest advertising agency business as a major step up, though WPP would love such client credibility at a time when chief marketing officers are increasingly questioning the efficacy of their agencies.
For all the gossipy entertainment of the rumour mill, we have been over this question before and Sorrell has remained resolutely in post. Present investigation notwithstanding, Sorrell remains the top man at WPP and there is no sign of a vacancy being advertised any time soon. It may be a while yet before we know who’ll be one day stepping into his sizeable shoes at WPP.