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If Sorrell really wants it, he can fight back and win

By Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Founder

April 5, 2018 | 8 min read

Sir Martin Sorrell is not one to take it lying down and his people should beware of underestimating the 73-year-old.


Sir Martin Sorrell

This one-man PR tornado is not afraid of a scrap, in fact, he relishes it.

Unlike Caesar, Sorrell's used to a knife or two in the back and always survives. Expect him to fight back. He's the hard-bitten war horse who's not afraid of any flak or a few bombshells. He's said he'll only retire when they shoot him.

The kind of ‘unbiased’ inquiry such as Sorrell now faces by the faceless board of WPP into his alleged personal misconduct and financial impropriety would, for most people, be enough to finish off their reputation and standing.

With reputational matters like this, it’s not the destination but the journey that provides all the drumbeats of a death march. There’s all the usual “there’s no smoke without fire” malarkey that will obviously get bandied about. Then it will be “it’s only a matter of time” before Sir Martin Sorrell is “ushered away” into advertising exile.

The board hiring not one, but three law firms to investigate their leader gives massive weight to the process. It supposedly puts the writing up on a gigantic billboard for the entire world to see: “Sir Martin Sorrell’s future at WPP is doomed”.

Sorrell’s rapid and early defence in the form of his PR release yesterday stated: “I understand that this process will be completed shortly.” So, no long-running, deep forensic investigation by the three teams of lawyers then, according to him.

This is an early sign that Sorrell fully intends to wrestle back the narrative and bring it firmly under his control.

There’s no one more skilled at reversing fortunes and playing the media game than Sir Martin Sorrell. I'm sure he’ll play it a hell of a lot better than the cumbersome WPP board, so watch this space.

In 2009’s annual report at the onset of the recession, Sorrell wrote that “after the threat of apocalypse, new centres of gravity” were emerging.

He said: “WPP’s strength has been our ability to identify trends and capitalise on them for your clients and ourselves. It’s how we began with two people in a room all those years ago. It is how we have weathered the recent crisis. And it is how we will position WPP for sustained growth in the years ahead – albeit with nearly 100,000 people directly with us…”

They could just as well copy and paste those same words from nearly a decade ago into 2018’s annual report. The apocalypse now is the threat of technology which has not only created an uncertain future for the entire marketing sector, but also the clients that they service. It’s battle stations.

Sorrell’s biggest PR failing has been that he’s too open and honest about his uncertainty of marketing’s future.

Everyone has always looked to him for all the answers. But rather than play the oracle, or keep his cards close to his chest, Sorrell made the mistake of dressing more casually, like Mark Zuckerberg, and adopting a conciliatory, less ‘Mad Men’ approach.

Sorrell’s touchy-feely and transparent admissions have been that “the media landscape has become much more fragmented" and "people are much more confused by it”.

He said: “I can’t tell you how many times clients say to me they don’t understand the returns they are getting on investments we make.”

He declared that 2017 was “not a pretty year” for WPP. Then shareholders were told not to expect growth in 2018.

That doesn’t sit well coming from a man whose pay packet has been under attack since 2012’s ‘shareholder spring’ when 60% of investors rejected his £6.8m package.

Back in April last year, The Guardian ran the headline ‘Martin Sorrell and the sunset of the superstar chief executives’ as they reported: “Even WPP’s guiding light is having his pay cut as pressure increases from corporate investors to rein in salaries and bonuses.”

Sorrell’s recent utterings aren’t exactly the emboldened defence of a mega-pay CEO in charge of the world’s largest advertising group.

Philip Lader the former WPP chairman once said: “Like Domino’s, WPP continues to deliver.”

Delivering. This has always been the justification for Sorrell’s proprietorial management style and ever skyrocketing pay packet. Once delivery failed, Sorrell was left between a rock and a hard place.

He had no grand vision or answers to offer. Instead, Sorrell dished out the blame to clients and objectors. In September last year, with the news that WPP stock was falling, Sorrell put it down to the rise of short-term thinking clients, activist investors and zero-based budgeting practices - and told everyone so. He singled out and named three of WPP’s top clients - Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Nestlé - as examples.

Sorrell’s comments were also an admission that he was uncertain the holding company could do anything about the factors putting pressure on its business. He said: “I don’t know whether anything is within our control or not … Some people say it’s the rise of the digital giants.”

Here was Sir Martin Sorrell, who had run WPP like a fiefdom, no longer providing the reassurances of a true leader in control.

It’s clear there are tensions between Sorrell and WPP chairman Roberto Quarta. So, is this inquiry simply being used to put pressure on the CEO to step aside?

There’s a devil is in the detail of his contract with WPP in that there’s no notice period of 12 months. The contract states they can terminate his service – or that the company can – “at will”. So, any blemish left on his leadership by this inquiry could mean sudden death.

Assuming he were to survive this round, and do not bet against him doing so, could Sir Martin Sorrell lead the evolution of WPP and make it adapt to market forces? If WPP needed to be broken up to combat the rising ride of those consultancies and brands bringing marketing in-house, would he be the man to lead that charge? I think so.

The thing about Sir Martin Sorrell is that while he’s never been an ad man as such, he is a very astute bean counter.

More than that, he is Jack, who planted those beans, climbed the beanstalk and found the goose that laid the golden eggs. If anyone can find new fertile soil, he can.

First, though, he just might have to agree to bring his salary down from the clouds and make it more appropriate for the new media landscape.

Bang On to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove

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