Cracking Sorrell's peanut

15 Jun 2018  |  David Pidgeon 
Cracking Sorrell's peanut

The gossip had been circulating, often in conspiratorial whispers, ever since Sir Martin Sorrell first announced his shock departure from WPP in April. Now the floodgates are open.

First the Wall Street Journal published the allegation - "strenuously" denied - that Sorrell had been investigated for using WPP funds to pay for a Mayfair prostitute. Then the FT, in a lengthy and vivid article on the ad man's downfall, coloured this story with reports of bullying, hot tempers and a culture of fear at WPP. The Daily Mail, true to form, relished a visit to the alleged brothel where one of its journalists interviewed the hostess behind the door where a handwritten sign read 'beautiful young lady, please knock.'

When Sorrell signed off his leaving note to WPP colleagues with 'Back to the Future', I don't think anyone thought we'd have to experience the worst of 80s adland sleaze along the way.

Gossip aside, what does all of this mean for S4 Capital, the business Sorrell had only two weeks ago launched to stage his comeback, and which he described to WPP chairman Roberto Quarta as being a mere "peanut".

Our view, even with limited information, is that it doesn't look good. However, one senior industry name told Mediatel: "Sorrell will have to weather it - many have weathered worse - and then we'll be left with the ad industry's most successful business leader ever turning his considerable skills and influence to starting over via S4."

Yet true or false, the allegations are painting Sorrell as toxic in an era when powerful men are being held to account. He might be a corporate whizz, but any association with prostitutes and bullying these days - when adland is showing lots of badly behaved men the door - is just bad business.

Sorrell's new investors might not mind (for now - some are seeking assurances), but the businesses he plans on acquiring to build his new empire certainly might. The culture in adland is changing, and Sorrell is looking increasingly like part of the old baggage many would like to be rid of.

Indeed, another senior industry name told Mediatel the world has moved on from Sir Martin in many ways.

"The industry of the future will be more democratised," they said. "It will be driven by smaller, highly creative and tech led entrepreneurial, gender balanced teams - the opposite of the commercially driven male dominated corporate monoliths."

Even when we factor out this week's news, other commentators, such as Henry Daglish at independent agency Bountiful Cow, suggest S4 is only going to supply "more of the same" - creating a mini-WPP rather than reinventing a new agency model.

Daglish said S4 was "unlikely to embrace the transparency clients deserve nor the start-up joy of innovating and collaboration the industry needs."

Based on the conversations we're having, it seems the industry is divided into two camps on Sorrell: The 'We-need-you-as-badly-as-ever' and the 'please just retire'.


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19 Jul 2019 

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