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.

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.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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.

"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".

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.