I’ve been hearing, reading and avoiding a lot of talk about Sir Martin Sorrell’s salary over the past few days, and I’ve noticed a trend of opinion from this. Those agencies, creative people and media platforms that value the idea more than the dollar have an impression about the man and his empire.
I run the world’s most awarded ad school, which is supported by over 100 agencies that are as diverse as my students (eight scholarships this year, nearly two dozen of those agencies) and my alumni are embedded in some of the top, top creative agencies. So I would be expected to have an opinion on the subject.
It might be a bit unexpected. Controversial even.
I believe that WPP has a very strong track record in nurturing creativity, sometimes through serendipity. I would go further and argue that WPP’s rise in value correlates with the growth of the creative sector in the UK economy.
I am going to make two points; one about the culture of benevolence that I see in WPP, from the top of the op co to the people working in their agencies; and the second half of my post will show that the beastly size of WPP is good for creativity.
Students around the world are celebrating that they have won a D&AD New Blood Pencil. They found out at the awards ceremony, which WPP supports financially. It also sponsors a number of events around the festival. I have my quibbles about some of how New Blood exerts its influence, but I am certain that there isn’t a better home for nurturing global creative talent than D&AD. And it’s British.
I’m not allowed to go public with the help that WPP has given the school directly, other than to say that we wouldn’t exist without its support, and that the collective support of WPP agencies is significant. There is a culture of generosity in WPP agencies that I can see in black and white on a spreadsheet.
I am off to WPP School in Shanghai in a few weeks, to teach its talented kids during our half-term break. The school is funded by WPP, and my trips help to fund more scholarships. This will be my third trip in two years, and it will have funded nearly four scholarships.
None of this is accidental. These are purchasing decisions, taken by Sorrell or his senior leadership team. None of them have asked me to write this. None of them know that I am.
Actions speak louder than words, and their actions speak louder than my blog post.
The graph shows that there is a link. I will turn to the serendipitous creative benefits of a strong WPP in just a moment. First, some timely and pertinent facts about some very recent things that it has done.
The serendipity of a strong WPP is that its size has spawned an explosion of diverse outlets for creativity across the UK.
We had a speaker in school this morning, Patrick Woods, who told us that there are now 20,000 agencies in the UK. We learned that Bristol and Manchester are thriving. We were warned that the agencies of the future need to be nimble, specialists, and collaborative.
I take no pleasure in seeing anyone get paid £60m whilst people find it difficult to earn a living wage, and I haven’t checked to see whether every WPP agency has signed-up to Stu Outhwaite’s brilliant manifesto. But in Sorrell I see a CEO who has (perhaps accidentally) been a catalyst for the creation of significant employment, whilst deliberately (and sometimes secretly) investing in nurturing creative talent.
People often gripe about the pace of life in this world of large operating companies that we now live in, and that there isn’t enough time for big ideas to seed, be nurtured and crafted, before being shared with the public. I think that they are living in a world where communication is one-way.
We often receive visits from creatives at Google and Facebook. Both companies are perfect examples of globally successful communications brands that have tested ideas with prototypes and vapour before investing in time and capital to take the best ideas further.
We had Steve Harrison in school this evening, screening his brilliant Howard Luck Gossage film. Fans of Gossage will know that he was a disciple of Norbert Weiner, the father of the concept of the feedback loop. In 1966, Gossage was showing the world how to communicate in 2016. He was literally 50 years ahead of the curve.
We now truly live in an age of instant feedback, creating endless feedback loops. We are beginning to develop the tools to make a sense of these conversation loops. In time, we will develop methods to decide who, how and when to continue these conversation loops. Spreadsheets will inevitably decide which conversations might require a well-crafted film, game or poster. Those that are chosen will be given resource.
The UK’s creative economy is vibrant and world-leading. It is perfectly set up to respond to extraordinary pace-of-change. WPP is the largest op co in our sector, so it is easy to argue that its fortunes are intertwined with the thousands of companies, craftspeople and startups.
Sorrell has taken WPP from nothing to a business worth more than ITV, Sainsbury’s and Domino's Pizza combined, and the creative economy has grown by £28bn since 2006.
Is he worth £60m a year? No, he’s priceless.
Marc Lewis is the dean at the School of Communication Arts, which is running a scholarship competition for two places at the school until 5 July.