Brand Sorrell comes undone

13 Jun 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Brand Sorrell comes undone

With his reputation at stake, Sir Martin Sorrell has his work cut out if he wants to protect both his legacy and his new business venture, writes Raymond Snoddy

Sir Martin Sorrell, the former boss of WPP, has just pulled out of a Leaders in Tech Summit where he was due to be interviewed by a CNN presenter.

If he had turned up in normal times it is easy to predict from direct experience what would have happened. The presenter would have been lucky to get a few questions in before Sir Martin would have launched into a fluent unscripted monologue.

It would have outlined the current state of the world economy, the impact of events such as the World Cup on the ad market, the ever-rising power of China, the latest events on the Korean peninsula and finally the power of tech and the need for greater transparency and accountability etc...

The presenter may or may not have asked the obvious question about his remuneration and if they had, the amateur cricketer would have batted it away with a well versed answer based on the fact that he founded the company, took out a mortgage on his house to fund it in the early days, and anyway reinvests the money in WPP shares.

Another variant line of questioning was tried at a one-on-one interview at IBC in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. His entitlement to a £70 million pay cheque was acknowledged but Sir Martin was asked whether it might not still have been wise to voluntarily desist, or make huge public donations to charity on the Bill Gates model.

Answer came there none.

But that was in a different era, now Sir Martin has done the previously unthinkable and passed up at short notice on the opportunity to be interviewed on stage by a major news network.

For those who are not journalists who have dealt with him over the years, it might be difficult to imagine the significance of the change.

Journalists working for the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal could be assured of getting their email questions answered personally and promptly whatever the time, wherever he was in his restless globe-trotting.

As for more formal interviews in the WPP boardroom all was calm and courtesy.

For decades Sir Martin was the WPP brand and the brand was Sir Martin.

The ultimate irony is that it is his favourite media outlets, the FT and the WSJ, which have wielded the knife with such skill and dexterity.

It is difficult to know for sure the exact mechanisms that led to the internal inquiry into Sir Martin’s alleged behaviour.

It is clear, however, that the exposure of an entirely different kind - accusations of illegal behaviour by Harvey Weinstein, again by the press - managed to change perceptions of appropriate executive behaviour in the developed world.

Such a sea-change in attitudes have moved on from the sexual to include bullying and domineering behaviour, especially of women.

It was a backwash of that particular mood change that led the FT to expose executive shenanigans at the now discontinued President’s dinner and with it Sir Martin’s role as a supporter of the charity.

It may have been the snowball that started the avalanche, that and the decision to fire, apparently unjustly, a chauffeur of 15 years standing.

Forget MBAs or executive coaches, general rule number one in the unofficial corporate handbook should be to never fire your personal driver unless there really is no alternative. They know everything - whom you talk to, where you have been, and which houses the car has lingered outside at unsociable hours.

And mindful that Sir Martin has strenuously denied all the allegations against him, if any executive feels the need for illicit female company make sure it is in the privacy of a hotel room where they cannot possibly be seen by an employee and obviously never, never, ever pay by corporate credit card.

The main problem for Sir Martin now, unless allegations are properly and publicly dealt with, is the factor that has fatally undermined many a political career - the power of ridicule.

Sir Martin could sue the FT and the WSJ for libel if they have reported anything that is untrue, although that would not be wise.

It would be better by far for Sir Martin to voluntarily waive his right to confidentiality on the WPP investigation and clear the matter up once and for all.

After all, the allegations carried by the WSJ and the FT were common knowledge in the advertising industry and beyond for many weeks before they were published. The rumours were always going to surface.

The FT report in particular, involving interviews with 25 former employees or associates, has clearly been under way for some time.

Amid the swirl of allegations it must be remembered that, according to the FT, the WPP investigation found no proof of misuse of company funds as alleged and that the amounts in question were “wholly immaterial.”

A decision to go for full disclosure would be complicated by the fact the conclusions were apparently delivered verbally rather than in the form of a written report.

What happens next?

It is hard to see how Sir Martin can be judged a “good leaver” entitled to a further £20 million or so in compensation and able to set up a rival business within weeks of departing.

As for S4, Sir Martin is tough and certainly no quitter. It is being put together financially by a relatively new company called Dowgate, which is the new corporate vehicle for one of the City’s most experienced media and investment analysts Lorna Tilbian. She would have checked in detail what she was getting into.

In corporate terms he could not be in better hands but in addition he may need to call on the services of a specialist in reputation management to ensure that the current travails do not continue to hang in the air, possibly blighting the future of S4.

A bold approach to ensure the “blank sheet of paper” Sir Martin says he wants would involve cutting all ties with WPP, however painful. It would also mean full disclosure, the rejection of the continuing “sweetheart” deal with WPP and the gradual selling down of his stake in the group.

After all Sir Martin Sorrell is not accused of anything illegal and would therefore greatly benefit from a clean break in order to move on.

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