IF SOR­RELL WAS SO IN­FLU­EN­TIAL, WHY CAN’T ADLAND AGREE ON HIS LEGACY?

For all the talk about ‘legacy’, in­dus­try ex­perts are strug­gling to agree on how Sir Martin Sor­rell will be re­mem­bered in years to come.

Campaign Middle East - - CAMPAIGN - By Alex Brownsell

The word ‘legacy’ – used and abused to the point of mean­ing­less around the Lon­don 2012 Olympics – has be­come the oblig­a­tory barom­e­ter with which to judge the per­for­mance of any po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural or busi­ness leader. Suc­cess, it would seem, is no longer enough; any­thing less than im­mor­tal­ity rep­re­sents a failed op­por­tu­nity.

In the wake of Sir Martin Sor­rell’s exit from WPP, a slew of ar­ti­cles were pub­lished ru­mi­nat­ing on the na­ture of his legacy, and whether he could be suf­fi­ciently proud of it. Yet, for all the thou­sands of words – mostly writ­ten in haste in the hours af­ter Sor­rell’s dra­matic de­par­ture – re­mark­ably lit­tle in the way of iden­ti­fi­able legacy emerges, be­yond the lazy bandy­ing around of terms such as “pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion” and “glob­al­i­sa­tion”.

James Mur­phy, co-founder of Adam & Eve/ DDB, former WPP em­ployee and one-time le­gal com­bat­ant against Sor­rell, summed up the gen­eral feel­ing of mag­ni­tude. “This guy was part of the fab­ric of our in­dus­try, both na­tion­ally and putting us on the global stage. For many of us, he has been a colos­sal fig­ure in the in­dus­try for all of our ca­reers, so sud­denly there is a sense of ab­sence. When we look back on this, it will al­most seem like a ge­o­log­i­cal mo­ment, like the change from Juras­sic to Cre­ta­ceous, there will be [pre-]Sor­rell and post-Sor­rell,” he says. Yet how best to judge that era? For the sake of ar­gu­ment, let us con­sider a quote by 19th cen­tury UK prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Dis­raeli: “The legacy of he­roes is the mem­ory of a great name and the in­her­i­tance of a great ex­am­ple.”

Is Sor­rell a “great name” in the ad­ver­tis­ing and busi­ness world? You bet WPP’s £16bn mar­ket cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion he is. But has he left a “great ex­am­ple”? Here the de­bate grows more frac­tious.

Ajaz Ahmed, chief ex­ec­u­tive of AKQA, which was ac­quired by WPP for $540m in 2012, likens Sor­rell to Mi­crosoft founder Bill Gates and says his im­pact on ad­ver­tis­ing has been so neb­u­lous that it may only be un­der­stood with the ben­e­fit of time and hind­sight.

“Driven, goal-ori­ented and com­pet­i­tive, [Gates and Sor­rell] have achieved un­par­al­leled suc­cess in their re­spec­tive fields. His­tory will not re­peat it­self; there is no model to em­u­late. The ex­tent of their busi­ness achieve­ments is not only un­matched but barely ap­proached. Tri­umphs so var­ied in their fruition it is dif­fi­cult to put them into per­spec­tive,” Ahmed says.

Yet, in the eyes of his crit­ics, Sor­rell was a scourge – the em­bod­i­ment of the doomed agency hold­ing group struc­ture, and the pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of profit over qual­ity of work. Only 18 months ago, me­dia agency pi­o­neer Chris In­gram, famed for his dis­like of WPP’s founder (he re­port­edly said he’d rather lick the floor of an abat­toir than work for him), ques­tioned whether the model de­vel­oped by Sor­rell and oth­ers had reached its end-point.

So who is right? And can we truly as­cribe a legacy to ad­ver­tis­ing’s most fa­mous name?

Lis­ten­ing to long-serv­ing WPP lieu­tenants, it is clear that Sor­rell’s lead­er­ship style forged a strong sense of loy­alty among many of his troops. Charles Courtier, who joined the group with the ac­qui­si­tion of Young & Ru­bi­cam in 2000 and went on to run its MEC net­work glob­ally, re­calls his pay­mas­ter as the “ul­ti­mate com­peti­tor” who was happy to be “parachuted” into client-re­lated crises at any given mo­ment.

“Hav­ing him in your cor­ner from [a new busi­ness] per­spec­tive was fan­tas­tic. He fought for every sin­gle win; no amount of ef­fort was too much. He would be avail­able for any client meet­ing you needed him in, and would make and take a mil­lion phone calls a day to solve prob­lems. He was driven in a su­per­hu­man way for WPP,” Courtier says.

Rory Suther­land, vice-chair­man at Ogilvy & Mather and one of few WPP em­ploy­ees to

en­joy a public pro­file to ri­val Sor­rell’s, says he will “miss” his lead­er­ship – and warns ri­val Lon­don-based agen­cies against cel­e­brat­ing too loudly: “Those of you out­side WPP also owe him al­most as much as we do, for it is down to his bravado that Lon­don re­mains pre­em­i­nent in mar­ket­ing ser­vices.

“With­out Martin I would prob­a­bly be work­ing for some­thing called Groupe Ogilvy SA and re­port to some­one called Jacques,” Suther­land adds.

As global chief ex­ec­u­tive of Su­pe­runion, the new net­work com­bin­ing WPP’s five brand­ing agen­cies, Jim Prior has been closer than most to Sor­rell’s at­tempts to rein­vent the group. While ques­tion­ing whether he would en­joy the idea of a legacy (“it sug­gests some form of be­queath­ment, and giv­ing things away eas­ily was not one of Martin’s many strengths”), Prior is eu­lo­gis­tic about Sor­rell’s im­pact on the mar­ket­ing world.

“Martin’s great achieve­ment was that he el­e­vated our en­tire in­dus­try. He pro­fes­sion­alised it. He made us not just cred­i­ble in the land­scape of global busi­ness but es­tab­lished us as lead­ers. He in­spired us to serve not only our clients but the wider con­cept of so­ci­ety through ser­vices that more closely aligned the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of or­gan­i­sa­tions and the needs of peo­ple,” he says.

“We should not un­der­es­ti­mate the ex­tent to which Martin’s am­bi­tion, com­mit­ment and soul have con­trib­uted to a bet­ter world. No one else has or could have achieved what he has.”

A cham­pion for the ad in­dus­try in the board­room and wider busi­ness world? Check. A fe­ro­ciously com­pet­i­tive and in­spi­ra­tional cam­paigner for WPP? Check. A cham­pion for Lon­don’s role in the global mar­ket­ing ecosys­tem? Check.

So are we to re­mem­ber Sor­rell as a kind of mod­ern-day “vic­tor of Que­bec”, en­sur­ing English-lan­guage hege­mony and Lon­don-cen­trism in the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try, and a cru­sader for mar­ket­ing ser­vices on the slopes of Davos? It feels an un­sat­is­fy­ing epi­taph.

The an­gry ele­phant in the room, of course, is the “C-word”. The most com­monly-used in­sult

“The legacy of he­roes is the mem­ory of a great name and the in­her­i­tance of a great ex­am­ple.”

aimed at Sor­rell (in po­lite cir­cles) is that he lacked cred­i­bil­ity as an ad­man. Creativ­ity, it is claimed by some, played se­cond fid­dle to build­ing a highly prof­itable vol­ume busi­ness – and, at times, was given away for free.

It is a point that Mur­phy and He­len Cal­craft, found­ing part­ner of Lucky Gen­er­als, de­bated re­cently. For Mur­phy, the “cheap luvvie cliche” of Sor­rell as a mere “bean-counter” is “way off the mark” – he de­scribes him as an “amaz­ing ac­count man”. In com­par­i­son, and while prais­ing the “grav­i­tas” he brought to ad­ver­tis­ing, Cal­craft is less con­vinced of his cre­den­tials.

“Some peo­ple said he didn’t un­der­stand creativ­ity – that may be so. Was he bril­liant for creativ­ity? Not nec­es­sar­ily,” she com­ments.

Prior is keen to re­buke any sug­ges­tion that Sor­rell lacked a cre­ative spirit. “In my meet­ings with Sir Martin the thing that of­ten struck me as sur­pris­ing was the qual­ity of his eye. He would look at cre­ative work and form an in­stant im­pres­sion of its mer­its, in my opin­ion with bet­ter judg­ment than many dyed-in-the-wool cre­ative pro­fes­sion­als are ca­pa­ble of,” he says.

Yet doubts per­sist. Charles Val­lance, founder and chair­man of VCCP, ar­gues that “em­pire” is a good word to de­scribe Sor­rell’s legacy. While ac­knowl­edg­ing Sor­rell’s love of cre­ative awards – last year WPP was named Cannes Lions Most Cre­ative Hold­ing Com­pany for the sev­enth straight year – he sug­gests he was “not very close” to the prod­uct, and was “more a busi­ness­man than an ad­man”.

With the pre­vi­ously mol­ly­cod­dled cre­ative egos play­ing se­cond fid­dle be­hind man­ag­ing di­rec­tors and fi­nance di­rec­tors, cre­atives at WPP would “bleat” about their lot – some­thing that irked Val­lance in­tensely. “Don’t be a whinger – go and be cre­ative some­where else. You don’t have to work for Sor­rell, or for hold­ing groups. They chose se­cu­rity but crit­i­cised the an­chor – you can’t have one with­out the other,” he says.

For bet­ter or worse, Sor­rell’s rep­u­ta­tion in years to come is likely to be in­flu­enced by the fate of WPP in the wake of his de­par­ture – as well as that of other hold­ing groups. Time and tide wait for no man, as they say, and even some­one as pow­er­ful as Sor­rell was sus­cep­ti­ble to the chang­ing needs of ad­ver­tis­ers.

For years he had found a way to adapt WPP’s as­sets to the chal­lenge, from pool­ing me­dia agency re­sources to max­imise buy­ing power for clients, to cre­at­ing be­spoke agency “teams” for clients such as Ford, and cre­at­ing a pow­er­ful dig­i­tal trad­ing desk in Xaxis to cap­i­talise on the rise of data-driven pro­gram­matic me­dia.

How­ever, it was the grow­ing de­sire for flex­i­bil­ity and sim­plic­ity among CMOs that fi­nally pre­sented the hur­dle over which Sor­rell could not leap.

His much-dis­cussed “hor­i­zon­tal­ity” strat­egy to make agen­cies work to­gether never re­ally got out of se­cond gear, Cam­paign’s global head of me­dia Gideon Spanier ar­gues. In the com­pany’s re­cent earn­ings pre­sen­ta­tion, WPP’s group chief trans­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer Lind­say Pat­ti­son even sug­gested it was time to “RIP that word”.

As Publi­cis makes head­way with “The Power of One” and Havas makes lots of noise about bring­ing cre­ative and me­dia agency teams un­der one “Vil­lage” roof, for the first time in a gen­er­a­tion, WPP looks to be on the back foot and play­ing catch-up.

“I don’t think he ap­pre­ci­ated in terms of morale how ‘hor­i­zon­tal­ity’ mucked up agency cul­tures,” Val­lance says. “Se­nior tal­ent were pushed out to en­tirely dif­fer­ent agency teams, and it was quite un­set­tling for quite a lot of tal­ented peo­ple. It is very dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a strong cul­ture in any mar­ket­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion. To then say we’re go­ing to cut across it – well, it looks good on pa­per, but not in prac­tice.”

It goes to the heart of Sor­rell’s legacy: in WPP, did he cre­ate a ve­hi­cle for wealth cre­ation and share­holder re­turn, or a force for pos­i­tive change and in­no­va­tion in the ad in­dus­try? To what ex­tent is WPP a col­lec­tion of dis­parate busi­nesses and P&Ls, or do those busi­nesses have syn­er­gies that makes their co­ex­is­tence ben­e­fi­cial for brand clients?

Even former col­leagues agree Sor­rell’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing was not with­out fault. “To be frank, I never un­der­stood the logic be­hind sep­a­rat­ing me­dia and cre­ative,” Suther­land says. “It seemed to turn an agency from a restau­rant into a Mon­go­lian bar­be­cue.”

Courtier be­lieves that “an era is end­ing” for the big agency hold­ing com­pa­nies. “That doesn’t mean they will go away, but the fu­ture will be very dif­fer­ent from the past. And it has been an era com­pletely de­fined by Martin,” he says.

Per­haps this is where Ahmed is right. We are view­ing Sor­rell’s last­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the worlds of ad­ver­tis­ing and busi­ness through the prism of his demise, and it may take months, years and even decades be­fore the full scope of his im­pact is un­der­stood.

Paul Bains­fair, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the IPA, is in no doubt that Sor­rell will go down in his­tory as a “game changer, one of a kind, a tour de force with un­equalled achieve­ments”. For Deb­bie Mor­ri­son, di­rec­tor of con­sul­tancy and best prac­tice at ISBA, Sor­rell’s longevity will shine as a bea­con in an in­dus­try suf­fer­ing from an in­creas­ingly con­spic­u­ous ab­sence of grey hairs.

“Sir Martin’s last­ing legacy has to be that age is no bar­rier to suc­cess. As an out­sider set­ting up WPP in his for­ties he built the most in­cred­i­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion, the big­gest UK-based hold­ing com­pany; this has to be an in­spi­ra­tion for any­one of any age or ex­pe­ri­ence con­tem­plat­ing set­ting up their own busi­ness to­day in our in­dus­try,” Mor­ri­son says.

More­over, in an age when younger em­ploy­ees are im­pa­tient for ac­knowl­edg­ment and re­ward, Sor­rell’s story is a pow­er­ful al­le­gory for the virtues of hard work, am­bi­tion and think­ing big. “He showed tremen­dous drive and tenac­ity, which I like in peo­ple. That kind of work ethic is not to be un­der­stated. A lot of his peer group couldn’t be both­ered – they didn’t have the con­fi­dence or the work rate that Sor­rell did. It wasn’t just given to him,” Val­lance adds.

And then there is the pos­si­bil­ity that we’re all just jump­ing the gun. At the ten­der age of 73, and father of an in­fant daugh­ter, time is still on his side – and the “back to the fu­ture” sign-off on his de­par­ture note to WPP staff hints at fu­ture plans, as does the re­ported ab­sence of a com­pete clause in his WPP con­tract.

Re­call­ing his Bill Gates/Mi­crosoft anal­ogy, Ahmed ob­serves: “With­out its founder in com­mand, Mi­crosoft has rein­vented it­self as a leader in cloud com­put­ing and eclipsed the pre­vi­ous value of its shares. WPP and Sir Martin now have the op­por­tu­nity to do some rein­vent­ing of their own.”

Maybe that legacy is yet to be de­cided af­ter all.

“To be frank, I never un­der­stood the logic be­hind sep­a­rat­ing me­dia and cre­ative. It seemed to turn an agency from a restau­rant into a Mon­go­lian bar­be­cue.”

Sor­rell: a mod­ern-day vic­tor of Que­bec

Deb­bie Mor­ri­son: Sor­rell em­pire shows ”age is no bar­rier to suc­cess”

VCCP’s Charles Val­lance: Sor­rell did not ap­pre­ci­ate how ’hor­i­zon­tal­ity’ dam­aged agency morale

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