Martin Sorrell Talks Candidly About Mergers, Mayhem—and His Own Demise

The WPP CEO says people don’t take risks

In 1978, Martin Sorrell had just started working with the Saatchis, where, as group finance director, he was the architect of the agency acquisitions that would reshape modern advertising. After investing in Wire and Plastic Products in 1985 (the basis for WPP, where he has served as CEO ever since), Sorrell was prescient in identifying changes impacting the industry, whether consolidation, emerging markets or new technologies. In this chat with Adweek, he shares his thoughts about where the industry is headed, what he thinks of Publicis Omnicom Group and his own plans for the future.

Adweek: What do you see happening in the next five years in advertising?

Sorrell: Thirty-five years ago, if I had said POG would exist, WPP would have done what we’ve done, the Dentsu Aegis deal. You would have said, “No way.” So you have to be careful about predictions. You never know what will come out of left field, but what is different now is all these new layers of competition: our direct competitors; others, like Nielsen, Ipsos; companies like Adobe,; the Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple group. All the differences will become less and less—we will morph into each others’ territory much more. Bigger companies will have the advantage of size, clout, technology and investment. Smaller companies will have the advantage of more responsive structures, more entrepreneurial, flexible people. Power will move to the big. It will be much more difficult for the small.

Do you think companies like Interpublic and Havas will be around as independent entities?

No. In five years they will be around, but not as independents.

Are you open to the idea of an acquisition that large?

At the moment, the answer would be no if you look at valuations and prospects. Over the next five years, you’ll see great differences in valuation terms. Over that time, you’ll see who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t know.

Have you figured out the rationale for the Publicis-Omnicom merger yet?

No, I haven’t [laughs]. You can predict the suggested co-CEO management structure [between Maurice Lévy and John Wren] will not survive. There’s a lot of talent on the move. We just took the North American chief creative officer [Lincoln Bjorkman] from Digitas for Wunderman.

And what about bigger industry trends?

Clients and legacy media owners will consolidate further. Agency offerings will become much more integrated. The sort of things we’ve done with [holding company] teams will become more the norm. We’ll be focused more on math men as well as mad men and more focused on the CIOs as well as the CMOs. Procurement officers and financial officers will become more important. Boundaries between us and competitors, our “frenemies,” will become more porous. If you look at the last five, 10 years, the industry looks remarkably different. We now sit with 35 percent of our business in digital and 30 to 31 percent in fast-growth markets. If you went back 15 years ago, digital didn’t really have any profile, and I think there will still be more disruptive technologies.

Has marketing lost its cachet? Does it still have a larger trajectory in the business world?

What I hope will happen, but not sure it will, is that there is a resurgence in marketing and a belief that growing the top line is a key to a business’s success rather than focusing on costs. I still think there are bags of potential, but we live in a world where people don’t want to take risks, a world where the average CEO lasts five years and an average CMO in America two years. There are good examples of people prepared to invest, willing to take risks, but they have to unfortunately deal with quarterly performance, non-executive directors, corporate governance, regulators.

What would you do if you were starting out in business today?

In five years, I’ll be dead [laughs]. I’d try and find a little shell company, private equity investor or venture capitalist and do the same [as with WPP], but the areas of focus would be different. Geography would be different. You might start in the U.S., but you probably wouldn’t start in Western Europe. You’d be more focused on media investment and data investment management and digital. The company would be much more balanced. In other words, it wouldn’t be classic advertising agency led. It would be much more neutral. You would be much more respectful of people in the media business. You’d be dabbling in content. Same approach in a way as now, but different focus.

Who are your biggest influences?

My father and Phil Reiss [the late Davis & Gilbert attorney who was a behind-the-scenes ally in Sorrell’s dealmaking]. Those two people were the most influential, with my dad being the most. His lessons: commitment, hard work, all the “apple pie and motherhood” stuff—enjoy what you do and focus on it. The difference with my father is, he would say, “Stay with one company and build a career; if you want to do something on your own, go do something on your own.” He wouldn’t say flit from flower to flower, which is the common approach. My dad’s advice was, find something you really enjoy doing—that isn’t work, in a sense.

He loved retail and he was 24/7 at it, but that didn’t mean he sacrificed family as well. My father thought speed, doing things quickly, was very important. If I don’t do something in response to a question or don’t answer a question, it’s because I don’t know the answer or I’m worried about the consequences of giving the answer that I know is right.

What are you doing these days when you’re not working?

Working. Playing cricket occasionally, skiing occasionally. That’s probably about it. My wife, my kids and my seven grandchildren, that’s it.

What’s that work life like?

 I spend one-third of my time in London, one-third in New York and one-third traveling. I’m in the U.S. about 25 nights a quarter, so about 100 days a year. I may spend a little more time in New York now than in London. I spend about a third of my time with clients, a third internally and a third with other stakeholders who would be shareholders, government, that sort of stuff.

Anything you still want to do?

We have a very strong company, but I’m still not convinced we have consistently reached the pinnacle, so there’s still a lot more bricks to put in the wall or more walls to be built. We understand technological changes, but we could be even more clever in dealing with those technologies for the benefit of clients. We could come up with more imaginative ways in working with them and solving their problems which are very difficult. But coming back to me, I’ll just keep carrying on chipping away until they shoot me like a dead horse and they take me to the knacker’s yard, the glue factory.

No smelling the roses before then?

No, I will not be committing suicide. Someone will have to murder me.