Legends of Advertising: Sir Martin Sorrell

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Few people in advertising can hope to compete with the fame and legacy of Sir Martin Stuart Sorrell. At the age of 76 and counting, the historic founder of WPP is still very much in the game, a proof of character with no equals in advertising and demonstrating his deep dedication to changing the industry forever.

Many are quick to make use of a sharp tongue when it comes to Martin, often relying on his displays of straightforward character and his sometimes brutal business tactics. Martin is feared as much as respected – he is admired as much as he is hated. But with him, many industry leaders have been reminded that truth can hide past initial perceptions.

Despite historically calling him “an odious little shit”, David Ogilvy himself once wrote to Martin: “To my surprise, [after we met for our first time] I liked you. I was flattered when you quoted my books, and even more so when you invited me to become Chairman of your company, which goes by the name WPP. I accepted your invitation. It remains for me to tell you that I am sorry I was so offensive to you—before we met.” At least one part of Ogilvy’s original remark may be true – at least to British standards; Martin is 1.69m, “as tall as Napoleon”, as Martin himself once pointed out in his typical style.

The historic founder of WPP left the company in April 2018 and left behind a long trail of stunning acquisitions, all contributing to making WPP the world’s largest advertising and PR group. Many will have heard about Sir Martin Sorrell’s outspoken views and peppery character, but few will know the details of his story and what hides beyond the mask of the successful businessman. What makes Sir Martin Sorrell so important in the history of advertising? Where did he come from? And just who is he, really?


A difficult legacy

No matter from what direction you approach the figure of Sir Martin Sorrell, talking about his successes and legacy can be challenging. You cannot ignore the impact his business decisions have had on the industry – yet one can hardly turn a blind eye on his critics, and how some defined Sorrell as a “bane” in the industry. WPP’s aggressive acquisitions and Sorrell’s competitive attitude have granted him a number of enemies, particularly those advocating against the traditional holding agency model. Yet, like many successful figures in the history of mankind, reality lies in the middle, and it will hardly be simply black or white.

His departure from WPP was much discussed, involving investigations into alleged personal misconduct and misuse of company funds (later proved to be false). He left a WPP in turmoil and under business pressure, which was then handed over to current CEO Mark Read. This would have translated into fall and dismay for many entrepreneurs out there – but not Martin. Even after losing his empire of 30 years, Martin is still forging ahead to change the advertising business.

Early Years

One could argue that the humble origins of Sir Martin Sorrell would have played a part in his life ambitions. Born in London on 14 February 1945, Martin descended from a Jewish family of Ukrainian, Polish and Romanian immigrants. His family suffered the lash of antisemitism in the poorer East End part of London, which eventually led them to the decision of changing their family name from Spritzberg to Sorrell (Martin's father, Jack, loved Warwick Deeping's book Sorrell & Son). Martin was educated at the independent Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boy’s School, then studied Economics at Christ’s College in Cambridge. He gained an MBA from Harvard University in 1968.


Image source: Daily Mail

As The New Yorker reports, Martin was different from his other classmates in Cambridge. He had steely determination to be a businessman, allegedly to vindicate his father Jack and how he had been mistreated through the corse of his work life. 

Martin joined a few different firms, including the IMG of Mark McCormack, an international agent for sports figures and celebrities. Then, in the early seventies, he joined James Gulliver Associates, a company that had invested in Saatchi & Saatchi, as a financial advisor. Soon enough, when Saatchi & Saatchi was looking for a Chief Financial Officer, it was time for Martin to jump ships and sail to different shores. In 1975, he joined Saatchi & Saatchi, later taking on the role of Group Finance Director from 1977 until 1984. Martin led, designed and carried out many of Saatchi’s agency acquisitions and was often referred to as “the third brother.”

Then, in 1985, Martin privately invested in a company called Wire and Plastic Products plc, a British wire shopping basket manufacturer. As far-fetched as it may sound, this is where the empire of WPP started.

The Rise of WPP

Just a year after starting to invest in the company, Sir Martin Sorrell joined it full-time as a chief executive in 1986. He renamed this shell company to WPP and started making clever moves and business deals to acquire a number of advertising-related companies. By the time he had been at WPP for just 18 months, Martin had already acquired 18 companies, launching WPP towards a market cap of £150m.

The turning point happened in 1987. Reportedly dismissing the unwritten rules of advertising which disdained hostile takeovers, he made a bid to take over J. Walter Thompson, a company with 13 times as much revenue as WPP.

The WPP empire was largely built this way. Martin would buy companies, not start them. He would acquire advertising firms from all over the industry, including the much discussed takeover of Ogilvy & Mather in 1989.

Yet in Martin’s view of business, there is no such thing as a “hostile takeover”. As he once said to The Guardian: “It is very interesting. Was it Jimmy Goldsmith [the late financier] who said there is no such thing as a hostile takeover? There isn't really. It is hostile to one person, the chief executive of the target company. It is not hostile to the share owners, it is not hostile to the clients, it is not hostile to the people who work there, so it becomes more personal in that sense.”

Surely the rise of WPP did not happen without a few challenges along the way. In 1991, WPP was in dire financial straits and it risked going under, due to a combination of world-wide recession and a decline in WPP’s stock price. By 1992, after closing a number of deals to grant some equity to the banks, WPP was reborn anew and stronger than ever.


The Reign of WPP

Soon, towards the early 2000, followed other takeovers, and especially two global, integrated agency networks: Young & Rubican and Grey. Fast forward to 2018, and WPP owned a number of advertising and market research companies, including AKQA, Wunderman Thompson, BCW, Essence Global and VMLY&R.

When you stop to think about it, it is crazy to realise that one man was able to turn a wire shopping basket business into a global advertising giant. When Martin left, WPP had a total revenue of about £15b and it was (and still is) considered one of the “Big Four” holding companies in advertising, alongside Publicis, Interpublic and Omnicom.

Some in the industry love to refer to Martin's resignation from WPP as a case of ousting. When we sent this article to Martin for sign-off, he confirmed that he wasn't ousted from WPP. He chose to resign due to the way the investigation was being conducted by the Chairman and the Senior Independent Director.

For all his outstanding contributions to the British economy and business world, Martin Stuart Sorrell was knighted “Sir Martin” by the Queen in 2000. He chose “Persistence and Speed” as a motto for his shield.

The challenges and critics

Surely Martin’s success did not come without its fair share of challenges. As the highest-paid executive in advertising at the time, Martin was often criticised for his £70.4m salary in 2015. Three years earlier, following a string of shareholder revolts over executive pay at other public companies, news of Martin’s £12.93m compensation package prompted a shareholder revolt in WPP as well, which was resolved by rejecting the resolution.

In a piece he wrote for the Financial Times, Martin defended himself: “I have been behaving as an owner, rather than as a ‘highly paid manager.’ If that is so, mea culpa. I thought that was the object of the exercise, to behave like an owner and entrepreneur and not a bureaucrat.”

Additionally, a string of leaked emails contributed to painting him as a micromanager with an excessively over-the-shoulder attention to details. Martin had a habit of answering emails almost instantly, and even Miles Young, before he voluntarily stepped down as the CEO of Ogilvy, admitted that he would receive “three to four emails a day from him.” He did, however, add that he is a great fan of his, and his unparalleled ability to be broad and strategic as well as detail-oriented.

Martin’s approach to running WPP was straightforward, no-bullshit, sometimes brutal, but as brutal as business can get. Everyone who took the time to learn to know him would come out of the conversation enriched and filled with respect. This is a man who changed the advertising industry forever, turning it into a huge business. Ruffling a few feathers along the way was always part of the game.

Furthermore, these accusations did not seem to bother Martin himself. To him, any claim that he is a micromanager is “a compliment”. With a company whose size is comparable to a “mini-state”, a CEO must delve into details – and admittedly, growth cannot be achieved by following unspoken rules and conventions.


S4 Capital - What’s next?

After leaving WPP in 2018, Martin acquired Derriston Capital and created a marketing company called S4 Capital. He purchased MediaMonks for $350m, then MightyFive for $150m. His time at WPP may be over – but his presence in the industry is far from being so.

Sir Martin Sorrell is now 76 and still very much interested in making a significant impact on the industry. Just a few days ago, Martin announced that demand for S4 Capital’s services is increasing at an “unprecedented pace”, as it raised more loans to seal more takeover deals. According to Martin, his new company continues to exceed expectations despite the pandemic, and in fact he hails a post-pandemic boom to foster even more growth for his business. It is worth noting that since his departure, WPP's market value has fallen by about £4b. S4’s market value is now approaching £4b.

Streams of ink could be spent to delve into the whys and hows of this unwavering determination, and perhaps after so many years, it may be true that Martin doesn’t yet feel that he has vindicated his father Jack. Or perhaps he just loves the thrill of growth, making an impact, changing the world of business to leave an eternal mark on this world.

When asked by The New Yorker if she could ever imagine her (now former) husband retired, Cristiana Falcone plainly replied “No!”. When we asked Martin, he confirmed it will be the case. We have no trouble believing this is true, and that Sir Martin Sorrell will keep pushing as long as he has the strength and energy to do so – or, as Martin himself specified to us, "until he dies."


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