Spooner on…the early retirement of Sir Martin Sorrell

spooner newIt is with great trepidation, a fluttering heart and trembling knees that I mount the huge curving staircase that leads to the ‘piano nobile’ of Lord McKelvey’s enormous Palladian mansion, which vaunts its columns, pediments and exquisite statuary high above the swirling sea-fret that sways in the breeze as its outliers sweep in to engulf the green Sussex coast.
I have never before been invited to the ‘Blue Room’, not quite the holy-of-holies, but still part of the McKelvey family’s inner sanctum.
As my ancient yet freshly-polished brogues sink deep into the luxurious Axminster, the door ahead opens and slams as Veronique, the pulchritudinous parlour-maid runs weeping from the room, her apron held to her face, her dark curls bobbing as she passes.
All is not well in McKelvey Towers.
I knock timidly and a weak voice utters ‘Enter!’
The huge, glass doors to the veranda are open and the great silk drapes are billowing onto the vast drawing-room in complex arabesques of watery sunlight and fog. On an enormous, Louis Quinze chaise-longue, piled high with costly furs and rugs the dim form of a handsome, yet visibly-distraught man may be faintly discerned.
Astonished, I recognise my master, Lord McKelvey. Can this be the same man that whupped the village blacksmith in three bloody rounds under the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules, only this Tuesday now gone?
‘Ah, Spooner, come closer’, he breathes, and a pale, bejewelled hand emerges and hands me, trembling, a piece of paper bearing the strange crest ‘Wire & Plastic Products’.
‘Read.. read…’ he gasps. My eyes fall to the text.
“As I look ahead, I see that the current disruption we are experiencing is simply putting too much unnecessary pressure on the business. That is why I have decided that in your interest, in the interest of our clients, in the interest of all share owners, both big and small, and in the interest of all our other stakeholders, it is best for me to step aside. As a founder, I can say that WPP is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that. Good fortune and Godspeed to all of you … now Back to the Future.”
It is signed, simply, ‘HRH The Grand Panjandrum Martin Sorrell’
‘A column, Spooner! A column on this catastrophe… before nightfall… so that my poor readers may know of it. Martin… WAS… advertising! Pass me the port and begone!’
Its exquisite cut-glass stopper in the shape of the famous McKelvey pineapple chattering and clinking in the neck like an alarm, I pass him the vast decanter commissioned from Waterford by his Great-Great Grandsire, which he empties at a draught.
‘BEFORE NIGHTFALL! BEGONE! BEGONE!’
And so as a pale sun illuminates my tiny cell in Lord McKelvey’s colossal chicken-shed, I begin.
What’s to say? The WPP share price fell by a measly 3.5% at this news and then rallied.
A huge amount of noise was generated in the advertising industry, much of it gathered intelligently in ‘Creativepool’.
“On Saturday evening (April the 14th), Sorrell and WPP released a joint statement to announce the decision alongside the news that Wunderman/WPP digital chief executive officer Mark Read and WPP Europe chief operating officer Andrew Scott were to be named as joint chief operating officers. WPP chairman Roberto Quarta will act as executive chairman until Sorrel’s full-time successor is named.”
And that’s about it. Everything else is idle speculation and gossip, some of it far too scurrilous for the pages of this august publication.
But what do we think?
I suppose that if you work at a WPP agency you might think a lot of things. It’s worth remembering that Sir Martin, during his hostile takeover of many of the advertising world’s finest agencies, aggressively acquired JWT, O&M, Y&R and Grey.
But frankly does it matter?
I have worked for three of those four businesses and the ultimate leadership of the holding group was a matter of supreme irrelevance in the day-to-day work of whatever agency I was toiling at. (When I worked at Omnicom, I once shook John Wren by the hand and he seemed a very charming fellow.) And, for every agency I have worked at that was owned by a holding company of whatever nature, the rule seemed to be: “As long as you keep one line above the other, we’ll leave you to get on with what you’re doing; we didn’t buy you to tell you what to do.”
Of course, the moment that money got tight, the accountants were all over us like an unpleasant infection, but that’s another story.
Lord McKelvey’s assertion that ‘Martin Sorrell WAS advertising’ is where, I think we get to the crux of the matter. Who else would Newsnight, The Today Programme, or News At Ten turn to for an opinion when matters advertising were in the news? And who else was as willing to aver, prognosticate or indeed pontificate on such matters as Sir Martin, as long as he was in the public eye?
When I worked in New York, a lifetime ago, the views of the big corporate leaders there were not sought in the same way. Sir Martin was an enormous fish in a small pond. You can bet that Omnicom, Publicis, Interpublic and Dentsu are rubbing their hands with glee – but WPP’s putative $19bn value is as nothing in comparison with other media groups or holding companies. And, of course, as we all know, the advertising industry is dead anyway. I bet Mr Zuckerberg barely noticed.
And I think that the days of the charismatic leader in advertising are over too. We have had no Steve Jobs, no Elon Musk, thank goodness and the last truly charismatic name in the business was probably suave, troubled, soignee David Ogilvy himself.
There’s a reason for this. When Lord McKelvey says that ‘Martin Sorrell WAS advertising’ we know what he means, but what he really means is that the pugnaciousness of Sir Martin’s business approach reflected positively on the industry as a whole. It helped to make us all more famous somehow.
But advertising isn’t like that.
If it is anything, it is a small group of people in a messy room full of empty coffee cups trying very hard to think up something clever that will sell someone’s products or services for them.
And in our brave, new world that room might be in a digital media agency, an SEO office, a heavy-lifting web-build enterprise, a ‘traditional’ agency, a freelance collective, a sad kitchen where a lonely man runs a ‘portfolio career’ in the ‘gig economy’– or, indeed, a teenage bedroom where the idea that will utterly transform our business yet again may be trembling on the verge of emergence.
Who is Sir Martin Sorrell after all?
Well, according to Wikipedia:
“Martin Stuart Sorrell was born in London on 14 February 1945: his father was an electronics retailer whose ancestors came from Russia, Poland and Romania. He was educated at Haberdashers’ Askes Boys School, then studied Economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge and gained an MBA from Harvard University in 1968.”
Sir Martin Sorrell is an accountant who has done well for himself.
I don’t think anyone in the advertising industry should be troubling themselves overmuch about the absence of an accountant who has done well for himself from the industry’s biggest holding group.
Who knows?
Now something interesting might even happen.

Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative

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