Sorrell: The worst thing about going from hero to zero is starting again without scale

Adland’s best known executive Sir Martin Sorrell has reflected on the experience of going “from hero to zero” after his acrimonious departure from WPP.

During a wide-ranging interview at Advertising Week Europe in London, Sorrell discussed his plans to reunite creative and media, revealed that WPP has agreed to pay him out and addressed his legendary email habits.


Early in the interview Sorrell was asked about his famous trait of personally replying to emails at all times of day and night, and industry speculation about how he managed to do it while running the world’s biggest communications group.

He said: “It could be robot Martin. There is a story running around that I have robots who answer.

“But this is a serious point. If somebody calls you or somebody emails you and has the interest to do that, I think you owe them a response.

“I do loathe people who don’t respond. There are people in our industry who are notorious for that.”

He also took aim at smug out-of-office emails.

He said: “I also hate the answer messages. There was a guy at WPP who wrote ‘I am on holiday at the bottom of an olive grove and I will not be able to respond for 24 hours’ or something.

“I said to him ‘Clients don’t respect olive groves or holidays’.  I thought it was a most impolite and unthoughtful message.”

Sorrell was ousted in April last year after the WPP board announced an investigation into an allegation of “personal misconduct”.

Sorrell told the audience that he had finally resolved his financial differences with WPP, with the company choosing to pay out his entitlements in the last few days.  He said: “The board of WPP have finally come to their senses. The investigation found nothing material. I left as a good leaver. Last week they finally agree to pay up the incentive agreements.”

Asked about a previous comment that he would only leave WPP “if they shot me”, he said: “Which they did. I wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.”

“The other advice I’d offer is: choose your board carefully.”

During the interview, Sorrell discussed the strategy behind his new venture, S4 Capital.

S4C’s current market capitalisation is around £460m ($860m). By contrast, WPP’s current market capitalisation is £11bn.

He said the organisation has three focuses based on where he had seen the greatest growth within the WPP portfolio – first party data, digital content, and digital media planning and buying.

He said: “Linking those three areas. What WPP taught me is S4 Capital’s model is first party data driving and fuelling digital content, and driving the delivery of that through programmatic. It’s a loop.”

The approach is radically different to Sorrell’s strategy at WPP, which grew on the back of media departments peeling away from full service agencies. WPP’s Mindshare was created by the merger of JWT and Ogilvy & Mather’s media departments in 1997.

“We’re going back to the 1990s. Instead of separating media. When I was at WPP everybody said I forced (the creation of) Mindshare. I didn’t force Mindshare. Shelley Lazarus who was running Ogilvy and Chris Jones who was running JWT were so appalled eventually by the losses that they had in media because the media people were treated like second class citizens.

“What we are doing is reuniting – ironically – digital creative with media.”

He said the company would not be involved in traditional media, only digital.

In another break from his WPP strategy, he said that rather than acquiring agencies, he wanted to purchase stakes in agencies, where the founders remain on board as shareholders.

He said: “The first sentence of any conversation  is, ‘Before we go any further, there’s one question I want to ask you: If you want to sell your business I’m not interested.’ I want to build long term brands.

He added: “People ask me what it’s like going from hero to zero.

“The good news is, it’s a clean sheet of paper. The bad news it’s a clean sheet of paper.

“I’m not weighed down by history or legacy analogue businesses. The bad news is I don’t have the scale.



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