It’s now a year since Sir Martin Sorrell departed WPP — a day that was always due to come, but no one predicted would take place in the first half of 2018, nor for it to happen in the manner it did.
I don’t know anyone who would argue that the manner in which he departed was positive for neither he nor WPP. And in the end, it was a clear example of why succession planning with major businesses is vital. Publicis Groupe could be forgiven for being a little smug in how its own handing over of the baton took place a couple of years prior. But in truth, Sir Martin was synonymous with the business he built and still casts a shadow even from afar. It’ll take years for that to pass, even if WPP has tried to shed its skin with a rebrand and elements of restructuring.
His annual exorbitant package of over £200m over a five-year period was not just a source of shareholder revolts, but also proved to be a huge distraction for him and WPP in the final years. He would argue though that the compensation package was justified through annual results. With those results coming more under scrutiny as the advertising sector began to feel the pinch, the writing may have been on the wall, as there was little doubt that there were elements within WPP who wanted him out for having far too much control. Perhaps not too much of a surprise then, that the WPP board made an example of him.
I asked Sir Martin, with the anniversary coming up (14 April), what one word he would choose to describe the past 12 months. His response was ‘speed’ and I can see many reasons for it.
I’ll long remember the Saturday the news broke. Rumblings reached me prior to Mark Kleinman at Sky News breaking the story of Sorrell’s resignation. Within minutes two releases were issued, one from WPP and another from its former chief executive.
Speaking to Sir Martin that evening he made it clear that any pipe and slippers were not on his shopping list and that he would not be walking away from the industry he lives and breathes anytime soon. Similar to how he treated most queries about his plans for succession – he didn’t plan on going anywhere.
The reasons for the resignation have been widely reported although never confirmed by either party – the absolute facts might never be reported, as was agreed within the settlement. There has been much speculation and a lot of tabloid titillation along the way. Sorrell has issued his denials and has weathered the storm. I’m still owed a drink from one industry publication owner who claimed he would not be able to bounce back. I never doubted it.
What did catch everyone by surprise was just how quickly he returned — with the formation of his ‘peanut’. S4 Capital was trading on the London Stock Exchange within months (28 September) and with its first investment being the acquisition of Media Monks against the might of WPP, the business-world was quickly made aware that most prominent figure in advertising was going nowhere. Although he did have a new playbook away from the behemoth he had built over several decades. This would be a company for the 21st century, in MediaMonks and subsequently MightyHive, which was acquired last December, S4 Capital is building its digital credentials. (Whether ‘the d-word’ is still acceptable or considered standard advertising now is still open to debate.) And he has stated his intention to double the business in three years.
His intention was clear from the beginning, too: use the C-suite contacts within some of the world’s biggest businesses to drive forward client growth with New Age services.
S4 has already posted its full-year results for 2018 (having previously existed as Derrison Capital) with £59.1 million in billings, while its pro-forma billings stood at £291.2m to reflect the numbers for consolidated results of MediaMonks and MightyHive, together with S4 Capital, if the group had existed in full for the year.
So why speed?
Well, it could cover a number of elements. The speed of business and the delivery intentions of S4 Capital’s offer. The speed that Sir Martin is working toward growing the company. The speed of change taking place within advertising and the needs that clients and marketers now have in working with their agency partners. I suspect all of those are true. However, the speed of change within his own working environment — how quickly the WPP changing of the guard took place — is also evident (although it could be argued that its pace in finally naming a successor without many names entering the frame was a much more sluggish response.)
A year on, then, and Sir Martin is ever-present. He has upped his game when it has come to making appearances at major industry events around the world. He was absolutely not shy in appearing at Cannes and ensuring he was seen. Before his appearance at The Drum Arms, numerous people asked me what we were really planning, so sure were many in the industry that Sir Martin had no intention of coming to Cannes so soon after his departure. Even the festival organizers asked me if I had confirmation that he was definitely on his way.
I doubt Sorrell sees himself as embattled, but the last year has presented just how thick his skin is. Even if he has lost friends along the way this last 12 months, he has shown no signs of changing who he is or how he works.
There’s a long way to go for him yet, and it’s created some entertaining chats over who he might aim to buy next…