The Industry Reacts to Martin Sorrell’s WPP Exit

Adland is still reeling from Martin Sorrell’s announcement last week end that he is stepping down as CEO of WPP in the midst of an internal investigation into allegations of personal misconduct. Whilst Sorrell’s legacy could end up being somewhat tainted, even his most fervent critics can’t deny his impact on the industry, as he turned a producer of wire shopping baskets into the world’s largest marketing services holding group.

For WPP, the challenge now is to pick the right person to guide the company through a potentially future. The last year has already been a tumultuous period, even before the upheaval of Sorrell’s departure. As a stop-gap, Chairman Roberto Quarta has taken on the role of executive chairman while a replacement is found, and Mark Read and Andrew Scott from WPP’s Wunderman will act as joint chief operating officers to run day-to-day operations.

While WPP handles the transition, the wider industry and analysts have been in a contemplative mood, both reflecting on Sorrell’s legacy while looking ahead to the agency giant’s future. Here is our pick of the best of the industry’s reaction.

WPP “not just a matter of life and death”

Sorrell, in a note to WPP employees, spoke fondly of the company’s importance to him. “For the past 33 years, I have spent every single day thinking about the future of WPP,” he said, ending his memo with a reference to legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famous quote:

“As a Founder, I can say that WPP is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that. Good fortune and Godspeed to all of you…now Back to the Future.”

He reflected too on the company’s successes under his tenure, while noting the challenges WPP will face in his absence. “As I look ahead, I see that the current disruption we are experiencing is simply putting too much unnecessary pressure on the business, our over 200,000 people and their 500,000 or so dependents, and the clients we serve in 112 countries.”

For his contemporaries, the nature of Sorrell’s departure makes paying tribute difficult, with the results of WPP’s investigation still unknown. Nonetheless, a few who know Sorrell offered their thoughts:

Best of the Press

Needless to say, both the mainstream press and the trade press has been awash with reaction, weighing up Sir Martin’s faults alongside his undeniable impact on the industry.

Campaign’s John Tylee looked back at Sorrell’s path to the very top of the advertising world. Tylee charts how Sorrell took Wire & Plastic Products and grew it into the giant we know today, offering insight into how his personal traits shaped his leadership. Tylee paints Sorrell as unrelenting and blunt, personally involving himself in as much of WPP’s business as he could.

“Now that Sorrell’s tenure at WPP has come to an end, it’s certainly hard to imagine him not running a company that he embodies in a way that’s almost unmatched,” says Tylee. “Such has been his determination to remain a driving force that he has rejected all requests to co-operate on his biography, believing it would signal his final curtain-call.”

Stephen Lepitak for The Drum meanwhile compared Sorrell to ex-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, a man similarly both loved and loathed, but always respected by his contemporaries. Lepitak compares WPP’s search for its next CEO to the difficult time United has had replacing Ferguson, and offers advice for Sorrell’s successor.

“We all know (Sorrell is) hard nosed when it comes to business – but occasionally he knows how to have fun. It’s not often I’ve seen him scowl. And that’s what I advise the next person to remember in the role. It’ll be tough and all-consuming – but it can be fun too if you figure out how to enjoy yourself at times. Be human but never be anything less than brilliant too.”

Some speculate though that the impact of Sorrell’s departure may have ramifications beyond a change of direction for the company. Matthew Vincent for the FT says a breakup may be in the offing, quoting an executive from an unnamed WPP competitor who compared Sorrell to “one of those dogwalkers with 100s of dogs on leads: as long as he’s there, they all have to go in the same direction.”

Vincent says WPP’s structure as a holding company, where many component parts retained high levels of independence, will make selling off businesses straightforward. He cites analysts that pointed to Kantar, WPP’s research, data and insights business, as one of the most likely candidates to be sold off.

Writing before markets opened this morning, Vincent said that “WPP’s shares will go in whichever direction its sum of the parts valuation suggests.” At time of writing, WPP’s shares had dropped five percent on the London Stock Exchange.

For Sorrell himself though, while his time at WPP may have ended, his huge earnings have not according to The Guardian. As the best paid executive on the FTSE 100, Sorrell’s massive personal pay packets have been a source of ire from some, which is likely to continue as The Guardian predicts he is set to earn around £20 million in payouts over the next five years.

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