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When chief executives meet in Sir Martin Sorrell’s absence, they sometimes deliberately email him simultaneously to test how quickly he replies and to whom. The chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency by revenue, is rarely offline, whether at a private dinner, a conference or a board meeting, his thumbs flashing terse replies back to contacts, colleagues, customers and the media. His rapid reaction time is legendary, triggering the occasional rumour (which Sorrell denies) that he has a team of assistants responding under his name.
Philip Lader, WPP’s chairman and former US ambassador to Britain, recalls sitting behind Sorrell at the Wimbledon finals. When the match was over, Lader’s wife whispered: “Did he ever look up from the BlackBerry?” These days, the response is as likely to come from his iPhone 6. But while Sorrell says he still loves his two BlackBerrys (one on a US network, one on a British network), he also carries something much more precious: a “letter of wishes” from his father, Jack, dated a year before his death in 1989. “It’s a very deep letter,” says Sorrell, one which contains the message that “no matter how dark the clouds are, [you must] have no fear.”
That advice has stood Sorrell in good stead. Through a combination of prolific dealmaking, relentless communication, near-constant travel and tireless promotion of himself and his company, Sorrell has turned a small maker of wire baskets — Wire & Plastic Products — into a vast marketing, media and communications conglomerate, with a stock market valuation of more than £20bn. After 30 years, WPP now embraces some of the best-known names in marketing, advertising and public relations, including Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson and Burson-Marsteller.
In the process, Sorrell has become one of the best-connected executives in the world. The epitome of “Davos Man”, he is ready with a question from the floor or a quip from the podium wherever magnates gather, from Allen & Co’s media summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, to the Cannes Lions festival, advertising’s equivalent of the Oscars. Sorrell has won the sometimes reluctant respect of rivals and the admiration of peers for turning advertising and marketing from a creative cottage industry into an efficient and global money machine.
But Sorrell attracts dark clouds, too. Last year, Maurice Lévy, 73, the silver-haired CEO of Publicis, WPP’s French rival, said that he would not miss Sorrell when he retired. Sorrell retorted that Lévy was “the Freddy Krueger of advertising” — a reference to the indestructible serial killer in A Nightmare on Elm Street — and would never step down.
While the Krueger jibe was typical of Sorrell’s sharp-tongued style, it was a strange comparison to make, because it could easily be applied to Sorrell himself. The WPP chief executive turned 70 on Valentine’s Day and everyone agrees he is likely to cling to his position, even if it means dying in harness. Mark Sorrell, the eldest of his three sons from his first marriage, jokes that his father will eventually be the man in seat 1A who does not get off the British Airways flight from New York. How long does Sorrell himself think he can continue?
“I will carry on as long as I can or as long as people will have me. At some point in time people will cart you off to the glue factory,” Sorrell says, in an interview just before his birthday. “I’m on the rat wheel going round and round and round, but it’s not a rat wheel, because I enjoy it . . . If you start something, it’s as near as a man can come to mentally having a baby. When you start something — you start an idea, you start a company — it’s something that you live and breathe.”
The advertising magnate is a voluble, engaging but elusive subject. Sitting at the boardroom table in WPP’s London mews headquarters, he deftly diverts more personal lines of questioning into a dead end of well-polished stories. The time he tried to call Eddie George, former governor of the Bank of England (the switchboard, having heard his explanation of what WPP was, put him through to the marketing department). His early days working with James Gulliver, who went on to head one of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains, and Mark McCormack, the pioneer of sports marketing. The meeting he has just had with Google’s European head Matt Brittin and will have the next day — in California — with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. His energy and deep interest are evident; his age seemingly irrelevant.
The media and communications business is used to gerontocracies. Of the tycoons whom Sorrell describes meeting in the early days of the World Economic Forum at Davos, only Robert Maxwell is no longer alive. The others — Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone — are all still running businesses at 73, 84 and 91 respectively. Sorrell performs a similar role at WPP, using a combination of visionary pronouncements and obsessive micromanagement of clients, finances and employees. Lorna Tilbian, director of Numis, the brokerage, who has long followed Sorrell’s career, says: “He’s the ringmaster, standing in the middle, getting them to jump through hoops of fire.”
There is a big difference, however. Unlike fellow ringmasters Diller, Murdoch and Redstone, who control the businesses they built, Sorrell owns only 1.45 per cent of the WPP circus. Other shareholders are submitting the group and its longstanding chief executive to ever greater scrutiny. His pay package — worth £30m in 2013 — and his unabashed defence of it have riled some investors. What is more, later this year a new chairman, Roberto Quarta, will take over. Quarta, a tough Italian-American with a background in private equity, is expected to be less submissive to WPP’s chief executive than previous chairmen. The question of how long Sorrell continues in his role, who could succeed him, and what will happen to the WPP empire if he goes, will be the most important issue on Quarta’s desk.
. . .
One afternoon in early 1985, two men in suits, smelling faintly of fish and chips, arrived at a factory in Kent with a proposition for Wire & Plastic Products’ managing director, Gordon Sampson. In exchange for the purchase of a minority stake, the men would turn the business into a major multinational marketing services company.
The outlandishly ambitious plan has come true. But Martin Sorrell has never quite shed the suspicion that hung around him and his partner Preston Rabl that day, like the odour of the chip shop where they had grabbed lunch. By Sorrell’s own account, Sampson was always “convinced that we did that to try and prove that we were men of the people” rather than what they were: a stockbroker and “a flash lad from the advertising business”.
Worse things have been said of Sorrell. When he started his quest to create a global company, he was finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi, the British agency dominated by the brothers Maurice and Charles. Sometimes known as “the third brother”, his reputation as a bean-counter, more obsessed with the numbers than the creative work, still clings to him. When WPP bid for Ogilvy Group in 1989, to the disgust of the target’s senior executives, David Ogilvy, retired head of the famous Madison Avenue agency, called him an “odious little shit”. This seems to have been toned down in the FT to “odious little jerk”. Sorrell, revelling in the publicity, used the acronym “OLJ”, with his extension number, in the next annual report.
In 2007, though, the diminutive advertising chief sued two former Italian business associates for defamation and invasion of privacy following circulation of a blogpost describing him and a colleague as, respectively, “the mad dwarf and the nympho schizo”. The case — later settled, with Sorrell accepting damages — followed a bruising divorce from his first wife, Sandra, in 2005, which involved a settlement of £30m and triggered a rare sale of some of his WPP stock. She accused him of having “marginalised” and “dehumanised” her, as his work and a long-running affair pushed them apart.
The first 15 years of building WPP were frenetic as Sorrell hunted down deal after deal. But while he has always tried to move faster than his peers, work “wasn’t all-consuming”, says one person who knew him then. As even his first wife conceded during the divorce case, Sorrell never missed a school parents’ evening. The judge concluded that he was not a workaholic. He might reach a different conclusion now. The line between Martin Sorrell the person and Martin Sorrell the executive is barely discernible.
Sorrell has always set great store by his ability to win business, or keep it, simply by being in the room. On a trip to South Korea in the 1990s, he endured course after course of kimchi, the traditional fermented vegetable dish, which he loathes, and ended up singing “Hound Dog” in a karaoke duet with a conglomerate head. Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble, remembers how Sorrell flew to JFK airport and back in 2005 just to reassure him that WPP’s purchase of the agency Grey Global, where P&G was a client, would not affect the relationship. Sorrell will sometimes go the long way round from London to Asia, to have dinner with a client in New York en route.
Since 2010, Sorrell has used a smartphone app to map his flights. London-New York-London still dominates. But now he spends “a lot of time in Asia, I spend a lot of time in Latin America, a lot of time in America and a lot of time in Europe, not as much time as I’d like in Africa and the Middle East . . . ” No wonder he has had to rein in his appearances as a stolid opening batsman for the WPP cricket team: “My schedule means I’m jet-lagged out of my brains, which means my performance would be worse than usual.”
Sorrell’s work rate seems to be accelerating as he passes the point where many busy executives step back. In 2008, he was married for a second time — to Cristiana Falcone, an Italian whom he had met at the World Economic Forum, where she worked. They celebrated with a blessing from the Falcone family’s priest, followed by one from a rabbi. But since then, according to Falcone, “the pace [at which Sorrell works] has actually increased and I think I had something to do with it. We don’t have children together and I work, so you don’t have a wife who forces you to be with her”.
Sorrell made his pitch to turn WPP into a multinational when he was already 40, comparatively old by most entrepreneurs’ standards. Lately, in line with his group’s shift towards more digital business, he has started to adopt the garb and jargon of an internet start-up founder. At less formal public gatherings, he is likely to be found in jeans and polo-neck. Peers comment enviously about the shape he is in. In public, his hands occasionally tremble visibly (something Sorrell himself says he has not noticed) but apart from greyer and thinner hair, the compact, tanned executive could be mistaken for a man 15 or 20 years younger. “For those who wish me to depart this mortal coil, the bad news is: it’s more interesting now than it was,” he says. Martin Sorrell is less Freddie Krueger and more Benjamin Button, the F Scott Fitzgerald character who starts life looking like a 70-year-old and gets progressively younger.
. . .
Martin’s father, Jack, was the most important parental influence. A first-generation Jewish immigrant, whose own parents came from what is now Ukraine, he eventually rose to run a chain of electrical stores. Martin had an older brother, who died at birth, and was brought up as a spoilt only child in northwest London, in what he now describes as “the slightly upmarket part of the ghetto”.
Jack had been obliged to leave school at 13, despite having won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. But he instilled in his son a hankering to follow him into business. Via Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (where he met life-long friend Simon Schama, the historian) and Christ’s College, Cambridge, Sorrell ended up at Harvard Business School. What he learnt there, he suggests, may partly account for why he is one of the rare entrepreneurs who still runs the business he founded. But there is also a counter-current, which nags at the advertising executive in the voice of his late mother. “[She] said it was the worst thing I ever did,” says Sorrell. “She thought I became too business-oriented, too concerned about work and all that stuff. Maybe she was right.”
In spite of his reputation as one of the best networked businessmen in the world, Sorrell has few confidants. His father was one. Another was Philip Reiss, a US lawyer and ad agency matchmaker, who died of cancer in 2001. After that, according to one person who knows him well, there was “a bit of a void”. Asked now to name other confidants, Sorrell runs through the names of WPP board members. Nobody, he finally concedes, has or could replace his father or Reiss, with whom he used to talk daily.
Jeremy Bullmore, former chair of J Walter Thompson in the UK and a doyen of the advertising world, joined WPP when Sorrell took over. At 85, he is still part of a loose advisory board. He comments: “There’s almost nobody he can’t call or be called by, but it isn’t a focused network. He uses certain people for certain functions. It’s very flexible. There’s no clique.” While Sorrell does drop in to exchange industry gossip with Bullmore at WPP headquarters, he will rarely pose a direct question about something that concerns him. “He has a habit, which I’ve seen in other confident people, in which you don’t actually ask, you get into an informal conversation in which something comes up,” says Bullmore. “Asking can be seen to concede some sort of weakness.”
Martin Sorrell rejoices in the accusation that he is a micromanager. “I’ve seen people extract themselves from the detail and the devil is in the detail,” he says. “Other people say retail is detail: maybe it’s something I got from my father. [But] it’s not a desire to interfere. It’s to get an understanding. Obviously, I can’t know everything that’s going on inside the business: that would exhaust me and probably I’d pop off with a heart attack as a result . . . but you try and figure out what is important.”
Fernando Rodés Vilà, a former CEO of rival advertising company Havas, says Sorrell always seems to know more about his competitors’ businesses than their own executives do. But he says Sorrell “really uses his fist to manage the group” — and this could backfire if he has to relinquish his grip.
Sorrell’s desire to control all aspects of WPP extends to the board, which theoretically ought to be controlling him, and to the annual shareholder meeting. He prefers board members to communicate with WPP managers through him.
Senior colleagues are diplomatic about Sorrell’s interventions. “It almost defines him, this incurable curiosity,” says Richard Ingleton, who joined WPP in 2013 as chief executive of TNS, the market research company. Others describe direct discussions of each business, in which Sorrell homes in on the financial performance. “There’s nothing remotely conversational about these exchanges,” says Miles Young, who heads Ogilvy & Mather and worked at the agency before WPP took over. “[Sorrell] is a born hunter and has a zest for the chase and sees that as a large part of his job.” Don Baer, chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the WPP-owned communications group, says: “If he comes to you with something, he’s intensely focused on it . . . He doesn’t stand on ceremony at all.”
“Martin has earned an enormous amount of respect and admirers, and people are prepared to say he’s done things for the business that badly needed doing,” says Jeremy Bullmore. “But he will never be in the ‘loved’ category and nor would he expect to be.”
Sorrell’s determination to win has generally served WPP well. One adviser to a smaller rival company recalls how the WPP chief personally intervened to prevent his client poaching WPP staff. “He was just ferocious. I gave him a call and I said, ‘This doesn’t seem to be good for either side.’ He said, ‘If I let this happen here, what’s to stop this happening in 20 other spots around the world?’”
But such a never-say-die attitude makes some wonder whether Sorrell is setting the right priorities. As with his compulsive emailing, doubts have grown that he has “increased the volume but decreased the value”, in the words of one person who has worked with him, by expending energy on fights that are distracting or even counter-productive. Another person close to Sorrell says: “He’s absolutely relentless but sometimes he does lack perspective about what’s reasonable.”
In 2012, Sorrell accepted the FT’s invitation to submit an opinion piece defending his compensation. (In typical Sorrell style, he asked if he could write his own headline. The request was declined.) “[If] I have been behaving as an owner, rather than as a ‘highly paid manager’ . . . mea culpa. I thought that was the object of the exercise,” he wrote.
Sorrell stands by the piece. In fact, he says it brought the company “one of the biggest opportunities it ever had”, though he declines to elaborate. As for the charge that he simply likes a good fight, he retorts: “That’s not a very sophisticated comment . . . It is worth having a fight if you think it’s the right thing to do or if you think the conclusion is you’ll end up in a better position.”
“Compromise for compromise’s sake” is what he dislikes: “Most of these [fights] are situations which involve the company progressing or not. Let’s say somebody does something wrong inside the company or outside the company and I think we should pursue a course of action because I think it’s the right thing to do, I’ll do it. Not because doing it causes a kerfuffle . . . not for the sake of the fight.”
One person close to him says he jumps at the chance to speak publicly — as an advocate for membership of the EU or to debate current affairs on BBC’s Question Time — “because he likes the joust”. Sorrell has also developed a taste for attacking his rivals. “He does it because he has an ego and he does it because he is good at it,” says one rival.
Maurice Lévy says his previously cordial relations with Sorrell started to “turn to vinegar” when the French group toyed with bidding against him to buy Young & Rubicam, and really broke down in 2003 when Publicis joined the bid battle for Cordiant. WPP prevailed on both occasions. “From that moment, there was an animosity on his part that forced me also to be very disagreeable to him,” says Lévy. “I couldn’t accept the nonsense he talked. Constantly, from that moment, he hasn’t missed a chance to be nasty to Publicis or to me, including ad hominem attacks, which are really extremely unpleasant.”
Sorrell can, however, show a softer side. He emailed Lévy after the Paris terror attacks to check he was all right, which the Publicis CEO says was “kind, and appreciated”. He sometimes helps colleagues who are in trouble or gravely ill. But at the same time, he is prone to directing bursts of anger at his staff, which seem to be forgotten instantly — at least by Sorrell. “I think it’s impatience,” says Bullmore. “He can’t understand why people aren’t as quick as he is about anything.”
Sorrell has “no hinterland”, says an executive at one WPP company. Apart from turning out for the WPP cricket team — “we play to win,” Sorrell says, superfluously — he tries to join a scratch side assembled every year by Sir Victor Blank, former chairman of Lloyds TSB, in aid of Wellbeing of Women. He supports other good causes. But there is a limit to the time he devotes to what he calls “the society stuff”. Sorrell is a trustee of the British Museum but, according to the board’s minutes, he has attended only three full meetings since his appointment in 2011. His religious observance has also fallen away. He was always, he says, “a three-day Jew”, observing two days of Rosh Hashanah and one of Yom Kippur, and trying to get home to spend Friday night with his family. Now he says it is more about the symbolism of the religion he was born into.
Falcone describes him — oddly, since Sorrell rarely seems to rest — as “a buddha . . . trying to focus on one thing and be in the moment”. But her comment helps explain why he does not collect the obvious trappings of success and why the idea of a portfolio of advisory and non-executive roles is anathema. Sorrell sits on only one other listed company board — at Alcoa, the US metals group — and is also a director of the holding company that owns the Formula One motorsports business. “I’d far rather be responsible for something or involved in something. I don’t like dipping in and out of things,” he says. “I like complexity but I like it with a finite objective.”
. . .
At the moment, Sorrell’s firm objective is to establish a legacy, according to people who know him. The chief executive himself dodges the question of what that might be. He recalls a course at Harvard where you were supposed to draw three intersecting circles: career, family and society. “There are very few people who get that balancing act right. I haven’t been able to,” he admits. But it is obvious that the success and survival of the business are still what really counts.
At his first press conference after the Ogilvy takeover in 1989, he told the FT: “It’s not a question of size but of quality.” In fact, he has always been interested in scale. That was obvious in 2013, when Lévy’s Publicis and Omnicom Group, the US holding company, announced a merger that would have eclipsed WPP as the world’s largest advertising group. When the plan imploded last year, Sorrell could barely contain his glee.
“Maurice Saatchi used to say if you’re the best, you’ll be the biggest, which I have some sympathy for,” says Sorrell. “There are other people who say ‘I don’t want to be the biggest, I want to be the best.’ That’s because they’re not the biggest.”
WPP still operates as a collection of separate agencies, sometimes competing with each other. But Sorrell has tried to encourage what he calls “horizontality”. For instance, WPP agencies work together for Ford as part of “Team Detroit”. Sorrell has also tried to get ahead of the trend towards data-driven marketing and media buying, creating Xaxis, which trades advertising space and targets specific audiences, based on proprietary data — a move that disquiets some clients.
But there is a big problem with securing this legacy. Much of the success of the group depends on Sorrell’s historical knowledge of how the pieces fit together. He says his epitaph ought to be that he was “somebody who could start something and run it” — a comparative rarity in business, where founders tend to hand over to managers.
Falcone says we should look at such entrepreneurial leaders as “artists”: “They never retire, they keep creating. If [Martin] slows down I’m going to hire a call-centre with a 24-hour service which keeps pushing emails to keep him busy, because if he is in my house with nothing to do, he will micromanage everything.”
“Martin is the best CEO in this industry and the best person to serve our shareholders’ interests at this time, but I emphasise ‘at this time’,” says Philip Lader, WPP’s outgoing chairman. A succession planning process has been in place for at least eight years, he adds. Even so, outsiders would struggle to name a successor. (Industry experts mention Mark Read who runs WPP Digital; others favour one of the executives coordinating the big client accounts.)
. . .
Whoever takes charge, change is inevitable. Roberto Quarta declined to be interviewed, but Lader, who will hand over to him in June, says: “The company has and will continue to evolve. It will require different talents. No one else will have the institutional memory of a founder. Different management styles and different organisational structures might be preferable at that point.” Another board member agrees that when Sorrell goes, WPP “may be structured differently, it may be managed differently, it may be prioritised differently”.
Rivals think Sorrell’s ego, or what one calls “his greed”, may be his downfall. But it is the size and diversity of the group that may presage its eventual decline. People interviewed for this article likened WPP to ITT in the US, where Harold Geneen was CEO until 1977, or Hanson, the industrial group assembled by James Hanson and Gordon White in the 1970s and 1980s, or the UK’s GEC, managed by Arnold Weinstock from the 1960s to the 1990s.
All three conglomerates were strongly identified with their architects, larger-than-life figures who, like Sir Martin Sorrell, promoted a particular vision and management approach. But there is another clear parallel: once their architects disappeared, the companies they had built were dismantled or disintegrated, leaving little to mark their once acclaimed leaders’ passing.
How Sorrell built WPP: key acquisitions
1987 J Walter Thompson
1989 Ogilvy Group
2000 Young & Rubicam
2001 Tempus Group
2002 H-line Worldwide (China) PR
2003 Cordiant Communications
2005 Grey Global Group
2007 24/7 real Media
2008 TNS market research
2012 AKQA digital agency
Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT
Portraits by Dylan Coulter
Photographs: Getty; Bloomberg; AP