Notes on a scan­dal

Campaign Middle East - - NEWS -

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?

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