Martin Sorrell Leaves Behind Shoes Too Big To Fill

Anant Rangaswami, April 17, 2018

Sorrell is different – he is a dream subject for an interview. Even post his WPP life, he will be.

Martin Sorrell

I’ve had more opportunities to interview Sir Martin Sorrell than most journalists have.  In addition to interviewing him each time he visited India, for a year I interviewed him every month, wherever he was in the world, for a show on CNBCTV18 that we created called “30 minutes with Martin Sorrell.”

In addition to my interviews, my colleagues interviewed him regularly at Cannes and at Davos.

Each time I heard that he was coming to India, I would scramble and ensure that I got ‘quality’ time with him – at least half an hour.

There is no other network agency head or advertising agency head that I would do this for.

Sorrell is different – he is a dream subject for an interview. Even post his WPP life, he will be.

Because he can talk, with authority, on an incredibly wide range of subjects. He can talk about advertising, about media, about creativity, about blockchain, about Modi, about the Congress party, about Brexit, about Theresa May, about Trump, about the impact of the monsoons on India and the latest Opec decisions on the European Union, about the change in policies in China and how these would affect the tech companies.

He has called Facebook and Google names: he dubbed them ‘frenemies’.

He can talk about cricket.

He can talk about food.

And he remembers the names and faces of everyone of importance that he has met.

That’s why Martin Sorrell is a dream subject for an interviewer.

As my former colleague at CNBC TV18 and current friend Pavni Mittal said on twitter, “As someone who has interviewed him multiple times, I can’t think of a CEO as sharp, articulate – and fun. If you walked away with a bad Martin Sorrell interview, it was your fault!”

I break up Sorrell into three elements: the global industrialist, the network agency head and the Sorrell who has a special spot for India. And it is because he is all of these three elements that WPP will find it hard to deal with his departure, as will the advertising business as a whole.

Let’s deal with these different Sorrell and the impact of his leaving WPP.

  1. The impact on the advertising industry as a whole: Sorrell, through his ability to understand, interpret and magically articulate the state of the economy or political developments was a far sought after talking head on news TV whenever anything major happened in the western world or in China. Anything. He willy-nilly ‘represented’ the advertising and marketing businesses in such situations, lending gravitas to a business that struggled to be seen as having gravitas in any country, including India. Sorrell was a regular at Davos, rubbing shoulders with leaders of countries, leaders of industries and policy makers from across the world. In short, Sorrell made the world take advertising seriously. After all, if advertising wasn’t a serious and important business, why was Sorrell on prime time news along with prime ministers, presidents and CEOs?In Sorrell’s absence, who will be the flag-bearer of advertising? I can’t think of ONE.
  2. Sorrell has an amazing ability to remember names and faces that matter to his business and has raised relationship-building and relationship maintenance to a fine art. In the past week, I have mailed him twice. In both instances, I have received a response in a few minutes. This, while he was going through the most difficult time of his WPP journey.
  3. Sorrell knows every important client of his across the world. Because clients are important to him. He knows Kumar Mangalam Birla, he knows Sanjiv Mehta, he knows Sunil Sood, and so on. He makes it clear to them that he knows them and that they are important to WPP. If that’s not a dream and near-perfect client servicing result, I don’t know what is.
  4. He knows key WPP employees across the world – and has close relationships with them. He appointed them, trusted them, delegated, gambled on them and gained thanks to them. There is no other way he could run a company that operated in over 100 countries and with 200,000 employees.
  5. He has been derided for being a Math Man as opposed to being a Mad Man, but that derision is hugely misplaced. Under his watch, WPP and their constituents have been regularly at the top of the leaderboard at Cannes and at almost every significant award you can name. While he is definitely an accountant, his ability to hire the best (or buy the best, as he did with JWT and Ogilvy in his early days) and retain the best speaks volumes of the focus on the business. He clearly understands what makes creativity tick – creative people. His relationship with creative stars at WPP globally can be seen at Cannes, where all of them are under one ‘roof’.
  6. He saw the importance of Asia in particular and the BRICS nations in general far ahead of his peers and competition, resulting in greater investments in offices and people in these markets, resulting further in greater market share in these markets.
  7. As far as India is concerned, Sorrell has been an annual magnet, his visits becoming the provocation to discuss all things good and bad about the business in India. Each visit also sparked discussions on possible acquisitions and acquisition targets, though, in the last so many years, Sorrell has stayed away from investments in all but the digital domain. He would have loved to have done a deal with Madison or cleaned up the uncertainty at Rediffusion Y&R, but, sadly, that’s for a future CEO to deal with.
  8. Finally, he is a math man. He understands numbers well, and his understanding of numbers has seen his WPP empire grow to almost GBP 20 billion at one point (it is estimated to be worth, even today, at GBP 22 billion if broken up into different businesses).

So what’s next for WPP? Whatever the new management does, Sorrell’s shoes are not easy to fill – and the replacement will NOT be able to fill them.

And advertising will be the poorer for this inability.

As will all the journalists who regularly interviewed Sir Martin Sorrell.