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

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