Notes on a scan­dal

Of all the ways Sir Martin Sor­rell might leave 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) – be­ing kicked

Campaign UK - - CONTENTS - By Claire Beale Global ed­i­tor-in-chief

…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 – he’s a phe­nom­e­nal busi­ness­man. He’s built WPP from noth­ing into a £15bn world-lead­ing 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. For now. Now he’s un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by his board over al­leged “per­sonal mis­con­duct”. And to any­one rub­bing their hands at the prospect of the down­fall of our in­dus­try’s big­gest ti­tan, I say “be care­ful what you wish for”. Even in the nor­mal course of events, Sor­rell should have iden­ti­fied his suc­ces­sor by now. But it’s not easy to imag­ine any­one else run­ning the labyrinthine WPP as bril­liantly as Sor­rell, who has built it deal by deal. Of the ru­moured can­di­dates, none has his un­der­stand­ing of the busi­ness cou­pled with his un­doubted charisma and im­pres­sive skills on the global busi­ness stage. Would the com­pany be as ruth­lessly com­pet­i­tive with­out his hy­per-per­sonal com­mit­ment? And if not, would it be bet­ter sold or bro­ken up, ab­sorbed by one of the man­age­ment con­sul­tan­cies or run by pri­vate eq­uity play­ers? Or stream­lined and re­duced to leaner bones? None of these sce­nar­ios sug­gests a brighter fu­ture for some of our in­dus­try’s big­gest agency brands such as Ogilvy or Me­di­a­com. But whether Sor­rell stays or goes, WPP must change. In the vac­uum of de­tail about the al­leged mis­con­duct, much of the nar­ra­tive around the Sor­rell story has cen­tred on the WPP model. Is the com­plex mar­coms be­he­moth – of which WPP has been the shin­ing ex­am­ple – still fit for pur­pose? It’s a model where growth is driven largely by ac­qui­si­tion (with the value of ac­quired com­pa­nies of­ten dwin­dling as they are ab­sorbed into the ma­chine and the founders move on) and it looks leaden and un­wieldy in the cur­rent cli­mate. It’s also ar­guably a model that has con­trib­uted to the com­modi­ti­sa­tion of the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try and the de­val­u­a­tion of cre­ativ­ity, smoth­er­ing in­di­vid­ual en­trepreneuri­al­ism and mak­ing this a vol­ume busi­ness rather than an ideas busi­ness. But a smaller or dis­banded WPP will not turn back the clock. Nor would a weaker WPP do much for the sta­tus of Bri­tish ad­ver­tis­ing in what is now a global agency mar­ket­place. And it won’t do any­thing for the stand­ing of our in­dus­try among clients al­ready con­sid­er­ing the value we add if one of our big­gest lead­ers leaves in ig­nominy. Un­less clients and an­a­lysts turn against the hold­ing-com­pany model al­to­gether, a strong WPP led by a strong chief is surely de­sir­able. I’ve no in­side track on what Sor­rell is ac­cused of. He’s a bril­liantly smart and, yes, some­times vi­ciously vin­dic­tive op­er­a­tor who might or might not have done some­thing care­less or stupid or thor­oughly of­fen­sive. Per­haps some pow­er­ful in­sid­ers have just had enough of his ar­ro­gance, his mas­sive pay pack­age and his pro­pri­eto­rial grip, and have found an ex­cuse to get him out. For the record, WPP has said the al­le­ga­tions “do not in­volve amounts which are ma­te­rial to WPP” and Sor­rell him­self has said “I re­ject the al­le­ga­tion un­re­servedly but recog­nise that the com­pany has to in­ves­ti­gate it”. That in­ves­ti­ga­tion could be con­cluded by the time you read this. Or it could take weeks to re­solve. Sor­rell might be ex­on­er­ated. Or he might go in an ugly scan­dal. He might even be ex­on­er­ated and still go. But what­ever the out­come, things will never be the same. • @claire­beale

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