Sir Martin Makes It Official: ‘We’re Not in the Advertising Business Anymore’

By Patrick Coffee 

Sir Martin Sorrell is big on data…or, as they called it back in the day, numbers. He, Maurice Levy and pretty much every other holding company bigwig now seem to believe that the numbers are our future and we should probably just let them lead the way.

Sorrell majored in economics at Cambridge and Harvard, and at this week’s Guardian Changing Media Summit in London–where smart British people said smart things to other smart British people–he strongly implied that WPP’s dedication to number-crunching will only increase. From Seb Joseph of The Drum:

“The definition of creativity needs to change. We’re not in the advertising business anymore.”

You probably won’t be satisfied with his explanation of the alternative.

“If you are given some data that helps you understand what the consumer is thinking about in either a practical, psychological or emotional basis then you’re going to come up with more stimulation. 5 percent of what we do now, Don Draper and maybe even Sir John Hegarty wouldn’t recognize. “In that cocktail it’s very tough to grow your top line and you have to contain your costs… companies are pulling in their horns and becoming very risk averse.”

So WPP is more interested in providing its clients with data than focusing on creative. But we knew this, and Sorrell’s main statement isn’t exactly new. Who else has made that very argument in the recent past?

  • Leo Burnett’s global CCO and now chair of Publicis Communications Mark Tutssel told the 2014 LIA Awards in Vegas that the ad industry is now in the people business: “people are looking for interesting things every day, so we need to create things that are more interesting than the things that people are interested in.”
  • In a 2014 PowerPoint presentation, Long Island agency ECG Group wrote, “we’re not in the advertising business anymore,” suggesting that the answer lies with alternatives like “inbound marketing,” Dove’s Instagram account and the Domino’s Pizza Tracker.
  • In a 2012 blog post, the INK Agency of Irvine wrote, “we’re really in the energy business. That is, we take the energy that our clients feel about their brands, and find ways to transfer that energy to their audiences.”
  • Way back in 2005, an unattributed person speaking to marketing consultants argued, “We’re not in the advertising business anymore, we’re in the communication or dialog business…We can no longer assert that a product is good, we have to make the case… No choice but to embrace the new medium… or fear it!”

This is all feels very familiar and possibly annoying. But at least Sorrell has clarified that the world’s largest advertisers no longer want to call it that and that the very concept of creativity needs to be somehow different.

Now if he could only explain how that might happen.

Just because we feel like it, here’s a GIF of his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pitch Coke’s media business via remote video. Thank you, Lara O’Reilly…this will never get old. (Yeah, I had to embed my own tweet because the image file is too big for WordPress, which sucks just as much as every other CMS.)

[Pic by Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images]