A FINANCE WIZ IN AD WONDERLAND
There has been a lot written about the sudden exit of Sir Martin Sorrell from the agency group that he assiduously built over the last
30+ years. Many reasons have been floated and Indian industry leaders have been gushing forth about how he was a great believer in India and did Indian industry a great service through his long innings as CEO of WPP(by visiting us as often as a few times every year,etc).
So a disclaimer will be in order before I write my piece. I never did work for an agency that belonged to WPP. And the only time I met Sir Martin was when the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) Board was invited for a lunch with him on the successful completion of the merger (as he called it) or take-over of WPP-owned TAM by BARC. The conversation around the lunch table was very courteous and I was left at a loss to figure out why David Ogilvy had called him an ‘odious little jerk’. But more about this later.
A little trip into history would illustrate where Sir Martin probably drew his inspiration from. The first agency that went global was McCann Erickson and ad historians tell us that they went global as their lead clients like Coke went global. Under Marion Harper, they created the first holding company, Interpublic. Marion Harper under the Interpublic Group (IPG) umbrella integrated several allied marketing services companies, including research, public relations, promotions, training,etc(a lot of scribes believe that Sir Martin created the world’s first integrated agency model, sorry you are wrong!) IPG later acquired other agency brands including Marshalk& Pratt, SSC&B Lintas and FCB (disclaimer again: I worked with FCB).
Marion Harper started his life in the copy research department and then went on to become the head of McCann Erickson. He also conceived the idea of a holding company with multiple agencies handling competing accounts. But he was a true blue, dyed in the wool advertising professional. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 73. You will later realize why the age 73 has an interesting coincidence.
Sir Martin Sorrell did what Marion Harper did, but there were many differences in the way the two men built their empires. The starting point of Marion Harper was the copy desk at an agency.
Sir Martin’s first taste of advertising was as the finance head of Saatchi & Saatchi. And when he went on to build a marketing communications empire on the back of a shell company, WPP, he did it as a shrewd financial engineer. In the process of building the advertising/marketing services behemoth, Sir Martin also built a name for himself as a world leader. Given his astute financial brain, he saw before most others that there was big money to be made in a consolidated media planning and buying operation. So he created possibly the world’s first global media buying organization when he dismantled JWT’s and Ogilvy’s media operations.
Sir Martin was indeed the first financial wiz to run an agency holding company. Others have followed, but till then the only leaders who went on to run agencies or holding companies were from the servicing side (‘Suits’ as they were known derisively) or from the creative/copy side (MadMen).
The creation of the media agency that stood apart from the creative agency was a new phenomenon in the USA (it existed in the Continent in some form and in Japan ad agencies were also media brokers, taking positions and buying media at ‘wholesale’ rates). The dismemberment of the media arm from the creative arm in one sense made the media teams stronger, but it also immensely weakened the ad agency structure.
Sir Martin did what Marion Harper did, but on a grander scale thanks to his knowledge of the concept of financial leveraging. His acquisition of agencies like Ogilvy, Young & Rubicam and Grey are stories that can be made into mini movies, or even a Game of Thrones-like mega series. As some of us were wondering when the big ticket advertisers would catch the flu and run from WPP as it started hosting their competitors under one roof,Sir Martin tap-danced on egg shells to manage relationships that were in direct conflict.He did the impossible. His agency group worked with Unilever and P&G, P&G and Colgate, Coke and Pepsi, just to name a couple of conflict relationships. It is reported that in many of these cases, it was Sir Martin who