Sir Martin Sorrell has broken his silence on his dramatic departure from WPP, telling The Drum that press coverage around the rumoured reasons for his exit has been “fanciful” and saying he believes interim co-chief operating officers Mark Read and Andrew Scott should be his permanent successors.
Advertising’s most famous boss addressed the trail of controversy following his sudden exodus from WPP in April after 33 years at the top in conversation with The Drum’s editor Stephen Lepitak at Cannes Lions today (21 June).
He discussed the media speculation around his alleged personal misconduct, his vision for new venture S4 capital, what the future holds for the world’s biggest ad networks and how WPP has in fact had a successor plan for the past decade.
Sorrell kicked off by addressing the media coverage around a swirl of allegations, which included reports from The Daily Mail and The Wall Street Journal that he had visited premises used by sex workers following the firm’s AGM in 2017. The suggestion being that the alleged visit was paid for with company money.
"There's been some pretty fanciful stuff [printed around] what may or may not have happened," he said, observing that even the initial news around his WPP exit was badly handled by the advertising giant.
Sorrell stepped down following an investigation into his conduct by the WPP board, and both parties signed an NDA, meaning details of his resignation are not likely to be formally discussed. When WPP concluded its investigation it said the probe “did not involve amounts which were material to WPP”.
On his departure being leaked by a source "at the very top" of his beloved business on a Saturday night over a holiday weekend, Sorrell said: "There are other courses of action that were open to the company of which they did not take.
"The most damaging thing that happened during the course of those events was the leak over the Easter weekend... which to my knowledge hasn’t been investigated.”
Sorrell confirmed to The Drum that he has asked the business to investigate the matter further.
The chief executive also gave a spirited defence against a report from the Financial Times which claimed he was a “bully".
“Am I the easiest person in the world to get along with?" he said. "You know that I am difficult, but if it's a fault to demand or expect excellence then mea culpa.”
Sorrell’s vision for S4
Just six weeks after his departure, Sorrell made a surprise, and quick, comeback as chief executive of S4 Capital – a shell company which has just raised £51m in private equity.
Backed by £40m of Sorrell’s own cash, the business will look to build a “multi-national communication services business focused on growth,” with Sorrell teasing that it will be “very different” from WPP.
S4 Capital will be based on the mantra of “new era, new age," he said.
“[It's] an acknowledgement that the business has changed. The structure of S4 Capital will be very different in structure than anything we saw at WPP.”
Long-term successor plan
Sorrell, who is still a 2% shareholder in WPP, also revealed that WPP’s succession plan – the lack of which has been a talking point in the industry for years – has actually been in place for close to a decade on the basis of him being “hit by a bus,” which he likened to his actual departure.
“For the last 10 years there has been a succession programme. The plan was for Mark Read and Andrew Scott to be joint chief executives. If it’s an internal decision…my view strongly would be those two individuals have complementary skills."
He added: “I say two not because nobody could replace me, but because the two together would be a powerful combination.”
Read and Scott are currently co-chief operating officers while the business finalises its plans, with Read steering the management responsibilities of WPP while Scott takes on the financial side.
Sorrell also forecast what the future holds for advertising behemoths like WPP, lamenting the lack of differentiation between the “big six” holding companies.
Sorrell founded WPP over 30 years ago, building the business into an advertising behemoth with 134,000 staff working in over 100 countries.