Insiders debate his influence but agree on key points…
In the wake of Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP—and the agency’s cryptic, murky handling of it—one thing is undeniably clear: Over the course of more than three decades, he remade the ad industry in his own image. And almost everyone else had no choice but to follow along.
“There are lots of people with axes to grind with Sir Martin,” said SoloUnion founder Matthew Bull, who formerly served as CCO at mcgarrybowen and CEO of Lowe London. “[But] he was a courageous guy, make no mistake. He had a vision about how he thought the industry should work, and he worked relentlessly to achieve it.”
But that vision didn’t always square with other leaders—especially creatives.
Did Sorrell truly marginalize creativity?
IPG officially started nearly 25 years before WPP, so Sorrell certainly didn’t conceive of the holding group.
Bull described these original company runners as “backroom guys” managing “amorphous brands.” And it was Sorrell who made WPP the dominant name in advertising, arguably at the expense of better-known properties like Ogilvy, JWT, and Y&R. Perhaps even more importantly, he split creative and media work into two distinct functions, with media providing a far larger share of profits. One longtime WPP executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the move a “marginalizing of creative agencies.”
Bull echoed the sentiment, adding: “All of a sudden if you’re Ogilvy, your measure of success is your margin, not how great your work is. For a guy like me, that is deeply upsetting.”
In short, the quality of the product itself mattered less to WPP investors than the profit margins to be had in securing its placement. But how much of this shift can be attributed to Sorrell himself?
“Detractors have already said he ruined the industry, ran it like an accountant and destroyed creativity,” said Tom Denford, co-founder of international search consultancy ID Comms. But Sorrell was simply answering clients’ demands by separating the “transactional” business of media buying from retainer-based services like creative, PR and design … and thereby achieving greater cost efficiency.
This shift de-emphasized creativity and encouraged the widespread commoditization of media agencies. “Media became all about pricing, but Sorrell was responding to advertisers. He wasn’t leading them toward that,” Denford said. He also noted that we have no way to know how creative shops, some of which had financial problems of their own, would have fared under independent management.
The unnamed, longtime WPP leader said that while Sorrell unquestionably “let money rule,” he also “put a lot of emphasis on how important it was to win at Cannes, in a good way.”
“He rescued [the agencies he acquired]from the abyss,” said the former executive. “The industry forgets that.”
The ad industry was already moving away from traditional concepts of creative excellence, Denford said, adding: “A new golden age of creativity will not happen. It’s too automated and technologically driven now.”
This business was always personal
Even Sorrell’s detractors can’t deny his outsize influence.
“He was always looking forward. He wasn’t afraid of innovation or technology. He was a very inspirational guy,” said Truth Agency founder and CEO Mary Keane Dawson, who first met Sorrell to discuss the sale of Spafax to WPP in 2000. “We basically believed that WPP was the most exciting business in the marcom sector at the time.”
But the atmosphere was very different 15 years later when Dawson encountered Sorrell again while serving as U.K. managing director at Neo@Ogilvy.
“There was a lot of politics, a lot of unhappy senior people,” she said. “It was very focused on meeting the numbers, and you couldn’t meet the numbers the old-fashioned way. Clients aren’t spending money on creative in the way that they once did. The whole edifice was quite adversarial.”
Dawson added that Sorrell “was not as admired and respected by people when I went back the second time.” And nearly all observers told Adweek that Sorrell’s apparent inability to separate the personal from the professional will have a lasting effect on his legacy.
Sorrell left in a cloud of suspicion as the company investigated him for allegations of “personal misconduct” and misuse of company funds. But he also drew fire for WPP’s handling of the Erin Johnson vs. Gustavo Martinez sexual harassment suit: Johnson lost her job while Martinez was shuffled to a post in Spain.
News of a settlement, in that case, broke the day after WPP confirmed Sorrell was under investigation.
Sorrell’s decision to back Martinez was “kind of old school. It didn’t matter what people did—the behavior was not as important as delivering the numbers,” said Dawson, noting that the move was certain to alienate women of all ages within WPP. “It seems to me … that he wasn’t listening to people, because I’m sure he was advised that was a very bad move.”
“It was a joke,” the anonymous former WPP executive said of the fact that the case dragged on for two years. “It was damaging to JWT, [and]they lost business. That was all Martin.”
Polarizing, iconic and undeniable
Sorrell is also rightly credited with turning advertising into an acquisitions game.
“All his big moves were highly strategic: Ogilvy for credibility, Y&R for more access to Ford, Grey for more access to P&G,” said Greg Paull, principal at international consultancy R3. “He played the long game on acquisitions and showed the other groups how it was done.”
The former WPP executive added that Sorrell “really understood the marketplace around the driving value of the holding company in terms of global reach,” citing his “aggressive, high-level grit.”
Another industry veteran said that approach also applied to Sorrell’s enemies, describing him as a “real vindictive guy” who would not hesitate to speak at length about how much he disliked other agency leaders.
Regarding the nature of his departure, the former WPP leader said, “I can imagine they gave him the opportunity to leave with grace and dignity. No way someone like that would leave without putting up a fight.”
“I’m sure [Sorrell] is hugely disappointed with the way it ended, because this wasn’t supposed to be in the script. However, the legacy still stands,” said Denford. “We will look at him as one of a handful of the most significant figures in advertising, and that will last longer than anyone who’s out there currently, sniping [at him]. He goes up alongside David Ogilvy, Rupert Murdoch, and other titans.”
Meanwhile, Bull remains ideologically opposed to Sorrell’s version of the ad industry, which he said is “not in a better place than it used to be.” But he acknowledges the disproportionate power wielded by one “kingpin”—and the influence it had on so many others.
“It’s not his fault. It’s our fault because we all allowed it to happen,” Bull said of those who sold some or all of their businesses to WPP over the past three decades. “Anyone can be dismissive or angry, but in the end, he made an offer, and we took it.”