Magazine article Management Today

Martin Sorrell

Magazine article Management Today

Martin Sorrell

Article excerpt

There are a number of theories about Martin Sorrell, founder and chief executive of WPP, the 1.5 billion pounds-revenue marketing services group. Determined empire builder, brilliant financial brain, wily survivor: all have been entered on the credit side of his personal balance sheet.

Other descriptions have not been so flattering, casting him at times as something of a ruthless number-cruncher, ill-at-ease in an industry which prizes creativity, and intent solely on squeezing maximum financial rewards out of his company's rather mixed formes. Absolutely unfair, of course, but that's the press for you.

'I suppose I have got a bit cynical about it,' grins Sorrell, looking tanned and relaxed on a warm spring morning, sitting in shirtsleeves in his first-floor Mayfair office. 'Once you have written the good story, there is only the bad one left to write. A couple of years of profits and I become a visionary again.' He shrugs. 'I'm not moaning. It's part of life.'

Life, as you might have guessed, is being rather good to the 51-year-old WPP boss at the moment. Last year's buoyant profits--the fourth straight year of improved results at WPP--have been followed by some sparkling first quarter figures this year, showing strong revenue growth in the US and Asia Pacific. The core ad agencies in his empire, J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, seem settled, custom market research is booming, costs generally are down, margins are creeping up, the group's large debt is being paid off. Apart from a little flurry in the British papers about the size of Sorrell's performance-related pay package, which could net him around 18 million pounds worth of WPP shares over the next three years, publicity has generally been positive. Indeed, as we speak, Sorrell and I are dwarfed by a massive piece of silverware sitting on the table in front of us, the size of the FA Cup, his trophy apparently for winning Publicity Club Man of the Year. Not quite the greedy goblin of adland legend, then?

Not a bit of it. Sorrell, you suspect, has always rather suffered in comparison with the flamboyant characters who have traditionally dominated advertising. He is not, as his old employer Mark McCormack wryly puts it, 'a glad-handing' sort of person, and as an owner renowned for slashing perks and squeezing overheads, he was never going to be a popular figure inside the advertising business. But now even his critics have to admit that with his empire--which nearly imploded prior to its financial reorganization in 1992--hitting its financial targets, and with old rivals like Maurice and Charles Saatchi (also previous employers, of course) having to start from scratch once more, Sorrell looks in a pretty powerful position again. So why then, do doubts still remain?

Possibly, as Sorrell himself admits, it is a legacy of the number of people who still feel let down by him. Like those who found the value of their WPP shares slumping from 11 pounds to 26p between 1987 and 1992, for instance. They question whether he has the right mix of companies run from the right place; whether he can ever effectively integrate them with the right vision; and whether you really can run a creative people business as a massive, publicly quoted multinational.

If this all seems a little tough on a man who has built up a huge empire with over 40 separate companies employing around 20,000 staff worldwide, you have to remember that Sorrell has made his fair share of enemies in the past. Perhaps it's his intellect. Sorrell is, by reputation, fearsomely bright, occasionally acerbic, not particularly gregarious and determinedly fascinated by the intricacies of managing big business. He has also remained remarkably untarnished by the glamorous superficialities of his industry.

The upside of this is that his overviews of the marketing services sector in past WPP annual reports have been models of sharp analysis. The downside is that some have perceived him to be too clever by half, and in negotiation, something of a slippery customer. …

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