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Martin Sorrell exits WPP at a time when it was looking to reposition itself

The 73-year-old said on Saturday he was standing down, departing at a crucial time for WPP which has seen its share price fall 30 per cent this year

Reuters  |  London 

Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell

Martin Sorrell's sudden exit from marks a shocking end to the career of a who through sheer force of personality made it the world's biggest firm.

said in early April it had appointed lawyers to investigate a whistleblower's allegation of personal misconduct against Sorrell, who over 33 years turned a two-man outfit into one of Britain's biggest present in 112 countries.

The 73-year-old said on Saturday he was standing down, departing at a crucial time for which has seen its share price fall 30 percent this year due to lower client spending, contract losses and a growing threat from and

"I shall miss all of you greatly," he wrote in an email to staff. "As a founder, I can say that is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that."

did not give any details of the allegation and denied the charges, initially saying that he understood the need to investigate. However, when the matter made it into he told friends he thought it was being used as a weapon to force him out, one source said.

A former rival and a current told last week that the fact was under investigation showed how the dynamic within had changed.

"To me it's not actually about whether he did anything wrong but it's the fact that three years ago the board would not even have gone down this path," the former said. "Martin was all powerful and without Martin was not worth thinking about."

MAKING A NAME

The son of an who was educated at the University of Cambridge, made his name as the director of the start-up British ad agency &

He took centre stage in 1985, buying a stake in a small firm Wire and to use it as a public vehicle to buy around the world.

Within a few years he had sealed a string of takeovers, snapping up such storied creative agencies as Thompson and Ogilvy before moving into the cash cow of planning and buying by creating Group M. Market-research firms and such as followed.

Known for a ferocious work ethic and microscopic attention to detail, built up the group by pitching aggressively for work, often leading the charge himself and going above the heads of marketing officers to deal directly with their bosses.

The role meant became an authority not just on but on the global and an ever present voice on the and at events such as

Respected by his peers, he was however shown little affection by them in the ego-driven ad and was sometimes dismissed as a "beancounter" because of his financial rather than background.

famously referred to as an "odious little jerk" when the sought to buy his company. The two ad men later made up and signed off WPP's annual report that year as "OLJ".

"He is so brutally competitive," the former said. "He is such a competitor and he can get so angry when he loses."

Many executives recount stories of the taking contract losses personally, including one who told how had shared an hour's in complete silence after his rival mentioned an account he had recently won from

sparred repeatedly with the long-time boss of French rival Publicis, Maurice Levy, and enjoyed pointing out to journalists the failings of his rivals.

His combative style earned respect from the senior staff who worked for him however. One New York-based told how, on a night out, senior executives would all email at exactly the same time to see who he would respond to first.

"He has an astounding grasp of detail if you consider the scale of the enterprise," said another who knew professionally for many decades. "It's practically a stage show."

The success also brought great wealth for the father of four, with the earning around 200 million pounds in the last five years alone due to a performance-linked bonus scheme that angered many shareholders.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

CEOs and executives, who asked not to be named, lamented that would not get the chance to reposition WPP, which in March posted its weakest results since the financial crash.

Whoever takes over will have to decide whether the group of 200,000 people should remain in its current form.

Having run the agencies as separate for years to stimulate competition, had started to break down the barriers to appease clients who found it unwieldy and unsuited to the digital age where clients could create their own content and place it directly on and

Brian Wieser, analyst at Pivotal Research, said had the right assets but it had not packaged them properly in recent years and the fact it was more fragmented than and meant it was now harder to reposition.

The initial task will fall to Roberto Quarta, who described as the "driving force" behind WPP, and executives and who will be operating officers while the company seeks a new

told staff that had come through difficult times before and would do so again, saying he would be available to anyone who wanted advice.

"For the past 33 years, I have spent every single day thinking about the future of WPP," he said. "Good fortune and Godspeed to all of you. Now, "

First Published: Mon, April 16 2018. 07:41 IST
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