How the mighty have fallen

How the mighty have fallen image
I must say at the outset that I have never met or had any dealings with Martin Sorrell, the former CEO of WWP.

Like many others who’ve spent their careers in advertising, marketing and the related publicity spheres, I have observed his meteoric career, rising over several decades to the point where he bestrode our industry like a global god.

He has always been an enigmatic man of mystery.

How did he attract all the world’s greatest agencies and their precious global clients to one single flame? A flame he fanned into life from humble beginnings as a supermarket trolley manufacturer?  How could one man have the ambition, energy, charm and intelligence to accomplish such a thing in one lifetime?

I’ve been a distant admirer of Sorrell, occasionally measuring my comparatively undistinguished path through the territory where he’s built a network of sixteen-lane motorways.

Sorrell was the man with everything: huge talent; a clever wife; a vast and growing fortune; looks; good health; an exceptional tailor; and the ear of the great, good and influential across the globe. Not to mention the unblinking adoration of his stakeholders and investors.

Whoops

Then I read the piece in the FT, ‘Martin Sorrell’s downfall: why the ad king left WPP - A tangled tale of whistleblowing and boardroom intrigue’, attempting to piece together the reasons for his rapid fall from grace.

He fired his exhausted driver, who’d given 15 years’ loyal service, on a petulant whim.  Like the little Dutch boy, the chauffeur’s finger was plugging a leak in a bursting dam.

The dam broke, pouring a torrent of disapproval and dissent though WWP’s carefully maintained public edifice.

Given the FT’s journalistic integrity and depth of their research, there seems little doubt that the picture they’ve painted of a greedy, obdurate, unpleasant, unprincipled corporate tyrant is a fair and proportionate one.

I’m very disappointed.

I attended a talk given by the late Max Clifford to some of the lesser mortals in the provincial PR industry some years before his well-documented fall.  He seemed the epitome of Mayfair suave - urbane, influential, mercurial and worldly.

I felt similarly disappointed (and to be truthful, slightly ashamed) when his catalogue of misdeeds came to light.

Again, behind the façade of loquacity, charm, talent and success lurked a deeply diminutive man.

Between them, Sorrel and Clifford were the public face of an industry populated by thousands of creative, gifted, conscientious and responsible people, among whom I’ve found my greatest friends – people I’ve admired for their ambition, energy, ability and honest intentions.

The vision of a man snatching fistfuls of unaccounted petty cash from a petrified clerk before heading down to Shepherd’s Market to relieve the stress of struggling to live on £70 million a year, is one I’m finding it hard to confront.  Sorrell’s profligacy - and that of his highly-regarded wife - has reinforced a stereotype that many in our business have spent our careers trying to dispel.

The business community at large has always been privately inclined to view ‘advertising and marketing people’ as untrustworthy, profligate spendthrifts, who milk budgets to serve their own purposes and fuel extravagant lifestyles.

It comes as no surprise to learn that he’s now (at 73) trying to feed his new business by cannibalising the old one.  A crook through and through.  The fact that his contract with WPP allows him to retain his £70 million a year until 2022 is simply astounding.

Sorrel has done global reputational damage to our industry that will take decades to repair.