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.

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”.