Why WPP’s Cryptic Handling of Martin Sorrell’s Resignation Is the Wrong Move

Agency's approach ensures continued speculation

The CEO abruptly resigned over the weekend after 33 years atop WPP. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

“To this day, the improprieties that prompted Sir Martin to step down have yet to be made known, which seems unusual in an industry where such secrets don’t stay secret for too long,” PR veteran Peter Himler told Adweek today.
Two days after Martin Sorrell stunned the global business world by resigning from his role as CEO of WPP after 33 years, industry consensus holds that the cryptic nature of his exit will ensure no swift end to the wild speculation about what led to the change—and what it means for advertising at large.

An exit shrouded in mystery

Many in the industry are still in shock, but some dynamics remain unchanged. Most major holding groups, including Omnicom, Dentsu and IPG, have declined to comment on the news. Former Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy, however, took the opportunity to offer his longtime foe one more backhanded compliment.
“It is sad to see Sir Martin Sorrell resign amid the investigation into his alleged personal misconduct,” said Levy, who praised his rival as a “fierce competitor” who “may have been lacking in vision on occasion.
“It is well known that our relationships were difficult, but I have always had respect for the entrepreneur and CEO. He always had the will to win, making all competitions against him extremely interesting and challenging,” Levy added. “By contrast, I would be hard-pressed to say the same thing for the man and his behaviors—the press is full of examples.”

"There's now a big question mark where there should be a period at the end of someone's unarguably hugely successful 33-year career."
Teresa Buyikian, veteran PR consultant

Sorrell’s resignation, Levy seemed to imply, is simply the latest example.
“I would say that the news of his departure remains shrouded in some mystery. This is likely by design,” said Himler, who spent 23 years in the WPP family, holding executive-level roles at Hill+Knowlton, Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller before launching his own firm, Flatiron Communications. “The question is whether it will remain so.”
WPP’s board of directors has all but ensured that a gray cloud will continue to hang over Sorrell’s departure for the immediate future by closing the inquiry upon his resignation.

The Saturday surprise

“WPP’s position is that it will not be saying anything further about the investigation,” said a spokesperson for Buchanan, a WPP-owned PR firm that represents the company’s financial operations.
“Given the circumstances, there was no ‘good outcome’ here for WPP,” said PR consultant Becky Honeyman, managing partner at New York’s SourceCode Communications. “From the perspective of an outside observer, WPP operated very much by the book from the moment the allegations were made public.”
Honeyman added that there were “clear attempts at transparency during the investigation” as evidenced “by sharing client and employee communications.” But that’s where the attempts ended. “The statement, ‘the allegation did not involve amounts that are material,’ at its conclusion has exposed them to attack from some in the U.K. for a lack of transparency,” Honeyman said.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, for example, called on WPP to reveal the specific allegations made against Sorrell.
Yet the company has made clear that it does not plan to release any information beyond the fact that the amount of money Sorrell was accused of misusing was “not material.” Its PR team also gave the impression of acting strategically to minimize the impact of the news by releasing it just after 5 p.m. ET Saturday (10 p.m. at its London headquarters). Sources with direct knowledge of the matter claim that many within WPP’s inner circles either had limited knowledge of the coming bombshell or were kept completely out of the loop.

"I would say that the news of his departure remains shrouded in some mystery. ... The question is whether it will remain so."
Peter Himler, former WPP executive

The Buchanan team in London only learned of Sorrell’s resignation “when he sent an internal note to WPP personnel,” according to the spokesperson, who said the news was distributed to major financial publications at that time due to WPP’s “disclosure obligation” as a publicly traded company rather than an attempt to delay or reduce the effect of the announcement.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.