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Martin Sorrell, the full interview at Cannes where he called out the industry for being ‘stuck in the past’

In a wide-ranging interview with The Drum at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Sir Martin Sorrell attempted to set the record straight against a backdrop of allegations against him in relation to the use of WPP money, his expenses and his management style. 

With limited space inside the bar setting in Cannes and people queuing outside to get in, the interview with the former WPP boss was a hot ticket at the festival.

And speaking before an audience overflowing outside the intimate venue in the French Riviera, he wasted no time in attacking the media’s coverage of recent events – including his departure from WPP, accusations of personal misconduct, claims that he abused the firm’s expenses system and the allegation that he visited a brothel.

“We’ve had some pretty fanciful stuff as to what may or may not have happened,” he said. “But the most fanciful is that I am now a whistleblower for the FBI, which is the latest thing to come to you from the house of the press.

“That is just another example of how ridiculous the press frenzy around this has been. I do think what has happened could have come out significantly differently. There were other courses of action that were open to the company [WPP], which they did not take but I think would’ve been far more constructive.

“There was a leak over the Easter weekend at the very top of the company and to my knowledge there has been no investigation whatsoever.” Asked if he had contacted his former employer to ask for an investigation into the leak, he replied: “I have requested one a considerable time ago.”

Addressing the criticism of his management style, which had led to accusations of bullying in several media reports including a lengthy piece in The Wall Street Journal, he said: “Am I the easiest person in the world to get along with? Sometimes I can be difficult. But I would always say difficult with justification. If it was a fault to demand or expect superior performance, or things to go well, then mea culpa.”

Revealing that he saw an opportunity for his new entity, S4 Capital, because there was little difference between the six big advertising holding companies – including his former employer WPP where he worked for 33 years, having founded the company – Sorrell stated: “We are starting from ground zero.

“S4 Capital I refer to as being a peanut. And I can’t believe that anybody would really be worried about a peanut, although it does occur to me that some people have peanut allergies.

“We are starting from the beginning and looking at a number of opportunities in what I would call ‘new era, new age’. Now a lot of observers have said: ‘my god he is 73’. I’d agree that I haven’t got another 33 years in me.

“I’m looking really at the next seven years and then depending upon my physical and mental condition I’ll make a decision about another cycle. That is not the condemnation people have suggested of what we have been doing at WPP for the last 33 years. It’s just a realisation and acknowledgement that the business has changed.

“I still get the feeling that we in our industry are stuck in the past rather than looking at the future. So the structure of S4 Capital will be totally different to anything we saw at WPP.”

Facebook and Google also came under the microscope too, given their dominance in terms of taking ad dollars away from both agencies and media owners. “They are media companies, not technology companies,” said Sorrell. “They are selling their own inventory.”

Consultancies were also discussed with Sorrell suggesting they were operating in another world to that of agencies. “They don’t compete with us for $5m, $10m or $20m projects,” he said.

“They compete for digital disruption or technological change, or marketing spend projects, which are as high as $250m or $500m. The consultants get in a level that is very different.

“S4 Capital is going to do two things. It is going to try and deal at the highest levels. It’s an optimistic brand ambition.

“At the same time, it is going to be able to tactically implement in a totally new way. What I mean by that is more agile, more responsive, less bureaucratic, more creative, more effective.”

Turning back to industry threats, he warned the festival crowd to expect further challenges from the big tech players. “The big five is: Apple, which will probably be the first trillion dollar company, Microsoft is number two in market cap terms and Amazon is number three and then you have Google and Facebook,” Sorrell added.

“Alibaba and Tencent are also half a trillion dollar companies. So the big seven, what I call the Seven Sisters because there are analogies to the Seven Sisters oil companies of the Rockefeller days, these companies are huge. So to put it into perspective, WPP is about $22bn market cap.I don’t see anything stopping Amazon. I see it as an unstoppable force.”

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