Sir Martin Sorrell was advertising’s answer to Sir Alex Ferguson
Whoever replaces Sir Martin Sorrell in running WPP had better not have vertigo: they are coming in at the top and it doesn’t get any higher that that right now.
It’s been sad to see how WPP has handled the tarnishing legacy of the man who was more than just its figurehead – he literally lived and breathed the company for more than three decades. People either loved him, loathed him or both in equal measures, but he was also admirable in his dedication to making money, both for the business and for himself. He is a true businessman and one of the few UK business leaders working on a global scale; and in front of an eager media spotlight.
Perhaps only Sir Richard Branson would compare in that respect. And perhaps the job can be seen as a poison chalice in the same vein as when David Moyes took over Fergie at Manchester United to no success and a swift exit. And like Sir Alex Ferguson, you just know Sorrell is adept at ‘the hairdryer’ treatment when things aren’t going to plan.
I remember watching a panel on how the mainstream media report the ad industry at an Advertising Association event a few years back where the business editor for Sky News was asked what he cared about most when it came to our sector. His response was along the lines of: “If you’re not Sir Martin, then don’t bother me.”
Sir Martin is what most in the industry aspire to be; he’s a rock star. He’s a headline act that people gossip and whisper about and few will ever successfully emulate. He can digest mainstream news and crunch what it means for the business world instantly. He could have a twinkle in his eye or a furrow in his brow within the same minute and he is always three steps ahead.
His obvious love for business and his ability to create a sound bite when most needed; ‘grey swans’ and ‘frenemies’ were not so often used in marketing parlance prior to his adoption of the terms in recent years.
I’ve heard so many anecdotes and stories about the man and his dealings. And I have many to tell of my own, and pretty much every single interview was unique in my experience.
I’ve learned over the years that it was always the difficult questions he could answer without quandary. I last properly conversed with him in person about the 2017 data hack and he had no qualms discussing how difficult that situation proved for WPP. It was when I asked him about his heavy sigh in response to reading an email before the interview even began that he had felt annoyed. I think that was the first time I’d ever actually annoyed him in God knows how many interviews.
He once winked at me mid-interview, to disarming effect, as he knew what he was about to say would be my headline… and he was, annoyingly, bloody right too.
Mostly I’ll remember the annual Cannes chats though. The first time I ever met and interviewed him was six years ago when I had the company iPad and we embarked on video content for the first time. I filmed the half an hour interview holding up the iPad in front of my head to capture his thoughts. I realised the next time we met that he had no idea who I was from holding that bloody thing in front of my face the whole time.
I was also fortunate enough to put together Sir Martin with Kim Kardashian on camera two years later. The story behind that would take me more space than the internet has, but suffice to say she seemed to be more in awe of him than he of her.
I’m certain everyone made a lot of money from that specific meeting too, apart from those behind the camera. And I’ll never forget that day – the accompanying stress and then resulting euphoria – for as long as I live.
There’s a side to Sir Martin few people see. One year he refused to change back into his suit for an interview as he was so blown away by the signed Brazil shirt he’d just been given personally by Pele. He was such an enthusiastic kid that afternoon, I remember. We all know he’s hard nosed when it comes to business – but occasionally he knows how to have fun. It’s not often I’ve seen him scowl.
And that’s what I advise the next person to remember in the role. It’ll be tough and all-consuming – but it can be fun too if you figure out how to enjoy yourself at times. Be human but never be anything less than brilliant too.
I bet we’ve not seen the last of Sir Martin for now. Maybe he’ll turn up at one of his many ‘frenemies’ like Google or Accenture one day. They’d be lucky to have him on their side.