Beneath the gushing tributes to Sorrell lies an industry fortified by the prospect of change
Despite his eye-watering salary, an ugly past business year and personal misconduct allegations still left unresolved, the industry’s response to Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP resignation smacks more of effusive obituary than critical analysis. But alongside the tributes is a feeling of invigoration: a hopeful sense that things will never be the same again without the godfather of modern advertising.
“The end of the era” is the ubiquitous phrase flying around the ad industry airways today (15 April), following WPP’s carefully buried Saturday night announcement that its founder and chief executive would be stepping down after 33 years. Such a grandiose expression is not unjustified in this case, however; Sorrell arguably built from nothing what is the modern ad industry today (or, what was the modern ad agency until the duopoly and consultancies showed up five years or so ago).
Tributes flooded in thick and fast from those who had worked with him, interviewed him and admired or criticised him from afar, despite the fact that no-one is quite sure what misdemeanours WPP’s internal investigation into an ‘allegation of personal misconduct’ threw up. Operationally, however, his departure is "unlikely to have an immediate impact on the group", according to Tony Walford, partner at M&A boutique Green Square. "Although he had a lot of personal involvement in how it was run, it was simply too big for one person to control.
"However, he is a huge character, someone the industry and the global business community turn to for opinion, as well as being the public face of WPP. Going forward, WPP needs to ensure it retains its personality."
Still, there are those who are happy to see him go. They are, by and large, the creatives in operation in the days before Wire & Plastic Products turned into a marketing company in 1985; former creative director Iain Maclean wrote: “I look forward to seeing the likes of JWT and Ogilvy freed from the man's spidery web”.
But perhaps it’s because Sorrell was famed for spouting phrases such as "I’ll carry on until they carry me out of the glue factory" and “I’ll die at my desk” that most tributes to his time at WPP are in the ilk of an epitaph.
Justin Cooke, the founder and former chief executive of WPP-owned agencies Possible and Fortune Cooke, wrote: “There are few people on the planet more driven and focused than Sir Martin - I have seen unicorns a third of his age left for dust ... I never had an email go unanswered. Often a succinct reply would appear in minutes.
“From dawn until dusk his commitment was Olympic. He was passionate about talent and despite a relentless work ethic understood the importance of family ... For me he will always be the Founder’s Founder. Goodbye Sir Martin.”
The PRCA’s director general, Francis Ingham, said Sorrell, “shaped our industry into the global success story that it is today", while Paul Frampton, the former chief executive of Havas UK, believes the ad industry will be left “with a sizeable hole” in the CEO’s wake.
“More than anyone,” Frampton said, “Sorrell was the poster child for advertising equalling big business and the ad industry would do well not to lose this important association moving forwards." He added that “his one failing is perhaps that he spent almost no time on his succession plan and considered himself invincible”.
The succession plan, as it stands, appears hastily put together. Roberto Quarta, chairman of WPP, becomes executive chairman until the appointment of Sorrell's full-time successor is made, while Mark Read, chief executive officer of Wunderman and WPP Digital, and Andrew Scott, WPP's corporate development director and chief operating officer, Europe, have been paired together as joint chief operating officers.
Even the board of WPP, it appears, are unsure of what comes next in a post-Sorrell world.
“[It’s a] sad day for advertising ...” said Michael Moszynski, founder and chief executive of London Advertising. “I also suspect it marks the high tide mark for the big holding companies.”
Drew Meyers, founder of Made Studios and former president of Gyro, agreed that Sorrell’s departure marks a new epoch for the industry. He said: “Aside from whatever scandal may or may not have occurred, this is another massive sign that the ad/marketing agency business as we've known it is OVER ...
“The holding companies, and their focus on ‘shareholder value’ versus client value ... are embarrassingly out of step with the needs of clients today and the realities of the marketplace. Looking forward to seeing how this trend continues to evolve and how agencies can reinvent themselves to deliver true value and impact.”
Yet Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal, argues that the industry may be overestimating the power of Sorrell, and that the news doesn't equate to "the end of the network model".
"If that was occurring it was going to happen regardless of Sorrell, and I’d argue that Levy is still actively involved in Publicis, so to the extent they are making changes, it’s independent of who is in the CEO role," he said. Fellow analyst Walford agreed, stating: "Regardless of whether Levy and Sorrell had stayed in situ, the traditional model was always going to be challenged at this point."
In a funny way, I shall miss Sir Martin Sorrell.
Banging on about ‘Grey Swans’, millennials and ‘bath-shaped’ recessions... telling news presenters ‘I don’t do brief’ when asked to be brief... his phenomenal name-dropping...
...but most of all, his Davos wardrobe. pic.twitter.com/C5cZXPOk5h
— Rt Hon Sir Peter Mannion KCB MP (@PeterMannionMP) April 15, 2018
Stephen Kenwright, strategy director at Branded3, added: “Sorrell’s narrative through recent disappointing trading updates has been entirely inconsistent with the views of the multi-billion-dollar consultancies disrupting the WPP model. Sorrell claims media is alive and well inside WPP – it’s creative margins that are being squeezed.
“Whoever comes in after Sorrell has to convince clients to pay WPP more for creative - because clearly the appetite exists - and live with the fact that the world will probably look to them to defend the entire media agency model. It’s a tough job.”
Leila Fataar, founder of Platform 13, reads the news with optimism, despite the loss of who she refers to as “a game changer and a maverick”. The former Diageo cultural marketer noted: "Times are changing and it’s about time too, in my opinion - and in ad land, across the board, it’s being felt more than ever. For me, flexibility and agility in all parts of the business is going to be the key to survival. It will be interesting to see how the new and ongoing traditional agency disruptions impact how WPP reorganise themselves now for the future.
"Let’s hope they grab this opportunity with both hands to help shift both their business and this industry forward.”
Outside of business operations, other commentators are hopeful that the departure of a 73-year-old white man from the helm of the world’s largest advertising business will lead to a more diverse C-suite – in WPP and beyond. One former Kantar employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “My bet for a successor is Lindsay Pattison ... Given the pay gap bad press, she’s a smart choice for shareholders and has proven she can make big changes.
“She’s personally been extremely personable and helpful for me throughout my time at Kantar and would signal a big change for WPP.”
Sir Martin Sorrell is not dead, and there’s no doubt a man of his apparent immortality will fail to resurface in the marketing industry – maybe at somewhere smaller, maybe at somewhere less traditional. But as he departs WPP he leaves the throne of ‘the most powerful person in advertising’ wide open.
In a week where Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Pritchard have held the headlines, it’s unlikely the title will go to another agency network boss – or at least one who fails to capitalise on the current appetite for industry change.
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WPP plc is a British multinational communications, advertising, public relations, technology, and commerce holding company headquartered in London, England. It was the world's largest advertising company, as of 2019.Find out more