Martin Sorrell: Adland Napoleon meets his Waterloo

Martin Sorrell built up a huge advertising empire with WPP. Now, after 31 years at the helm, he is leaving under a cloud – and his company and industry face unprecedented upheaval. Jane Lewis reports.


As a schoolboy growing up in north London, Martin Sorrell was "a demon batsman getting him out was like breaking the siege of Stalingrad", his old friend, the historian Simon Schama, once observed. That might explain why "even after two weeks of swirling speculation" it still came as a shock when Sorrell abruptly quit last weekend following unspecified allegations of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets, says Matthew Garrahan in the Financial Times.

"Company and man have been inextricably linked since 1987" when the former Saatchi finance director began transforming a small Kent-based maker of shopping baskets, Wire & Plastic Products, into the biggest force in global advertising becoming known as the Napoleon of Adland along the way.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

In a farewell note to staff, Sorrell made clear that he hasn't lost any of his grandiosity. WPP, he wrote, is "not just a matter of life or death it was, is, and will be more important than that". But the confident tone belies the shabbiness of his exit and the shaky future of the empire he leaves behind, says Alistair Osborne in The Times. Thanks to a non-disclosure agreement, Sorrell and the board have avoided "facing awkward questions" on the specifics of what he has allegedly done wrong.

But it's questionable whether a share award of £20m is "really deserved", given he has already been paid more than £200m over the past five years while shares have tanked by a third in a year. The shares fell by another 7% as investors contemplated life without him. He is widely believed to be the only person who understands the nuts and bolts of the conglomerate. Yet amid intense competition from the internet giants, he has left his sprawling creation without a succession plan at a critical point in its history and many believe a break-up is now inevitable.

Advertisement - Article continues below

"The era of advertising Sorrell ushered in has been about scale" with a handful of big players WPP, Publicis, Interpublic, Omnicom and Havas "hoovering up smaller agencies," says Mark Sweney in The Guardian. A "relentlessly driven" master dealmaker, Sorrell, 73, "invented the big holding company model" securing Madison Avenue trophies including JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, and Young & Rubicam in the landgrab. His ousting is "the end of an era", says former Havas boss David Jones. "But also maybe the beginning of the end for an industry."

Memorably described as an "odious little sh*t" by adman David Ogilvy, Sorrell wasn't always liked but he was widely admired, says the Evening Standard. He turned advertising "into a grown-up industry" and was one of the few big corporate chiefs willing "to talk publicly, no-holds-barred", opining "brilliantly" on everything from Brexit to business and economics.

Authoritative on the record, "the Sage of Soho" was "spicily witty and entertaining off it". Criticised "for being a numbers guy", he was "actually perhaps the best corporate communicator of his generation". A quiet retirement "looks unlikely" and Sorrell, who took the precaution of avoiding a non-compete clause in his contract, hinted as much at the end of his farewell email to staff. "Napoleon was exiled to St Helena after Waterloo, Sorrell has no such constraints and may feel he has unfinished business." What happens next could be "fascinating".




Bernie Ebbers: the downfall of the Telecom Cowboy

Bernie Ebbers had the starring role in the greatest rags-to-riches story in US corporate history. A plot twist at the end turned it into a different k…
10 Feb 2020

Kim Woo-choong: the ambiguous legacy of Daewoo's Chairman Kim

Former Daewoo chairman Kim Woo-choong inspired a generation of entrepreneurs. His empire collapsed and his career ended in ignominy, but was he to bla…
3 Feb 2020

Willie Walsh: the colourful scamp who saved BA

Willie Walsh is standing down after 15 years in the cockpit at Britain’s flagship airline. Few will miss his combative approach, but the industry is l…
17 Jan 2020

Neil Woodford rides again

Neil Woodford’s speedy descent made Icarus look like a slouch. Many thought he would now be spending more time with his horses. He’s actually plotting…
1 Jan 2020

Most Popular

Investment strategy

The secret to avoiding being panicked out of your portfolio

With the coronavirus continuing to occupy headlines, investors still aren’t sure how to react. But the one thing you mustn’t do is panic. Tim Price ex…
11 Feb 2020
Silver and other precious metals

You should all own some silver. Just don’t expect it to make you rich

Silver is cool, beautiful and immensely useful. But for investors it's the most frustrating of metals. Dominic Frisby explains why you should own some…
12 Feb 2020
Investment strategy

Just five assets matter for investors. Here's what they are

Every investor’s needs are different – but most can be met by the right combination of five investments
11 Feb 2020

Is 2020 the year for European small-cap stocks?

SPONSORED CONTENT - Ollie Beckett, manager of the TR European Growth Trust, on why he believes European small-cap stocks are performing well.
12 Feb 2019