Notes on a scandal
Of all the ways Sir Martin Sorrell might have left WPP – effecting a spectacular sale, smoothly handing over to a well-groomed successor, carried out in a coffin (always considered the most likely option, according to those that know him best) – resigning after being investigated for “personal misconduct” is surely the bleakest.
Those who know Sorrell assumed he’d dig in and fight to the death. In the end he quit. So it’s unlikely we’ll be told officially now what the allegation did involve and what the investigation found. A WPP statement confirmed “the previously announced investigation into an allegation of misconduct against Sir Martin has concluded. The allegation did not involve amounts that are material.”
But whatever your view of Sorrell – and he’s become such a public figure that plenty of people who’ve never worked for or against him have a view – over the last three decades he’s proved himself a phenomenal businessman.
He built WPP from nothing into a £15bn worldleading British company and won himself a reputation with the City and the wider business community that has elevated our whole industry. Whether you admire him for his business nous, loathe him for ripping the heart out of our industry, or do both, Sorrell has earned respect. At least in the absence of any detail about that alleged “personal misconduct”.
It’s not easy to imagine anyone else running the labyrinthine WPP as brilliantly as Sorrell, who built it deal by deal. Of the rumoured successors, none has his understanding of the business coupled with his undoubted charisma and impressive skills on the global business stage. Will the company be as ruthlessly competitive without his hyper-personal commitment? And if not, will it be better sold or broken up, absorbed by one of the management consultancies or run by venture capitalists? Or streamlined and reduced to leaner bones (the sale of Kantar has already been speculated on)? None of these scenarios suggests a brighter future for some of our industry’s biggest agency brands such as Ogilvy or MediaCom.
Whoever the board does pick to replace Sorrell, there’s no doubt the new boss will have to get stuck in to making some significant changes to WPP. In the vacuum of detail about the alleged misconduct, much of the narrative around the Sorrell story centred on the WPP model. With big clients taking more of the advertising pie in-house whilst continuing to drive for further cost-cutting and a reduction in the number of agency partners they use, companies like WPP are under significant pressure. Is the complex marcoms behemoth – of which WPP has been the shining example – still fit for purpose?