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Ad Industry Brandalism Sir Martin Sorrell

Sir Martin Sorrell claims we're not in the advertising business anymore – but he's still reaping its mammoth rewards

By Jeremy Lee, columnist

March 30, 2016 | 4 min read

It’s very easy to criticise Sir Martin Sorrell and his eye-watering salary. It’s very easy and it’s also absolutely right.

WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell

WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell

Given that the wider industry has made great advances in showing that it is a 'force for good' (although its soul searching, if not its action, over diversity looks like it will continue for some time), Sorrell’s estimated £70m 2016 pay cheque is in danger of putting this good work back further.

Sorrell’s defenders quite rightly point out that his remuneration scheme is based on tough targets that are dependent on the growth of the company. And few can dispute that WPP has been a great British success story – the company defends the pay cheque, which includes a share award, with the fact that its share price has grown by 98 per cent over the past five years. There’s little doubt that a large part of this is down to Sorrell’s hands-on approach and business nous – and all credit to him for that.

And yet, and yet. Having trousered more than £150m since 2010, the sheer size of this award just looks like crass vulgarity at a time when most of the rest of the country has yet to loosen its belt from the 2008 crash. For those pressure groups that see advertising as a venal and morally bankrupt business that is more concerned with the bottom line than the greater good, this will just add grist to their mill. And that would be a disservice.

There are so many good, clever, thoughtful – idealistic even – people in the industry who do not, as Sorrell is putting on such a convincing show of appearing to do, just care about the money in their pockets. It’s why so many devote their creative and intellectual efforts to good causes beyond their day jobs of promoting consumer choice – whether that is pro bono work for charities or the usually unsung projects helping the less fortunate in their local communities.

Either way, Sorrell is likely to face off dissent at his remuneration package at the WPP AGM for the fifth consecutive year, and that looks like he either doesn’t listen to complaints that he is greedy or he doesn’t care. Given that at the 2012 AGM he spent two hours justifying his achievements for the £22m he received that year, shareholders should brace themselves for an even longer afternoon.

It’s little wonder when you read such headlines of corporate excess that advertising is held in such little regard in some quarters that groups such as Brandalism are targeting agencies by inviting staff to ‘switch sides’ and use their skills to fight poverty and inequality. The flyposters outside agencies including Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Ogilvy & Mather may have been little more than a stunt but demonstrate the contempt – or the lack of understanding – the advertising industry sometimes faces.

But then, Sorrell doesn’t think the advertising industry exists. Speaking at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit last week, he said that the industry needed a rebrand and that the availability and impact of data meant a profound change to the way that creativity was born. That’s another debate that’s set to continue to rumble on and on ad nauseum.

While brilliant examples of data-informed creativity might still be few and far between, there’s little doubt that Sorrell has used data extremely cleverly in a personal capacity to maximise his bonus in WPP’s long-term bonus scheme. Whether he analyses the psychological or emotional data collected from WPP shareholders at the AGM later this year to inform his future salary, we can only speculate.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JezzaLee

Ad Industry Brandalism Sir Martin Sorrell

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