Truth, Triumph and Tragedy: WPP's Second Act

#SirMartin is trending.  The swift and mysterious drop off the world stage has left the ad world drowning in love letters written with poison pens.  Not since Julius Caesar have so many Mad Men and Women come to bury, not praise.  More feared than loved, Sorrell wielded power in a way that would delight Machiavelli.  David Ogilvy famously derided him as “an odious, little jerk,” which was kinder than many of the things I heard him called during my years at Grey.  His meetings inspired the same pit-sweating dread in agency bosses as The Paper Chase’s Professor Kingsfield: “Here’s a dime, take it, call your mother, let her know there is serious doubt you will ever become a lawyer.”  Or in this case, Agency President with a car service and complimentary week in Cannes.

Of course, since this is advertising, the quaking quickly morphed into the kind of flattery rarely heard outside a Trump Cabinet Meeting.  “Martin remembered my name!  I must concede, the man is a genius,” one uniquely ingratiating boss would beam on the rare occasion an update went well.  She would bask in the warmth of The Sun King until inevitably the rains came and the cycle of fear and loathing kicked back in.  She didn’t last long.

I don’t know my noble namesake, Sir Martin, though I feel I do.  Sure, I was in the room where it happened for all kinds of holding company pitches where his mere presence sucked the good  judgment of Account Directors, Brand Planners and Creative Directors right out of their trembling heads in futile acts of self-sacrifice.  Bank of America.  Army.  Johnson & Johnson.  More losses than wins, but these are not where I developed my faux sense of familiarity.

I started working at Grey in 2004, as part of an effort to transform its direct marketing shop into a digital agency of the data-driven future.  With seven years at Interactive Agencies, I joined at the precise moment WPP announced it was acquiring Grey.  The last big independent, the House P&G built, Grey was the Grand Prix of acquisition targets.  Cinderella at the Ball, it was not only looking to hook up but had everything to offer the Prince.  Heritage.  Talent.  Brands.  But like plastics in The Graduate, Grey lacked the “one word” that defined the future: digital.

Which is why I felt optimistic.  The cavalry had arrived to end the Game of Thrones among the Villages and business units like Grey Interactive that were more interested in turf wars than their clients’ futures.  Say what you will, when it came to digital transformation, WPP’s Sorrell sensed the enormity of the wave that was coming before his peers and sounded loud alarms of change.  He knew the numbers and understood where the precious media dollars would flow once the rising tide crashed on the shore.  With the same vision and courage that had him aggregate buying clout for clients by building a colossal holding company, Sorrell knew the future of advertising would lie in the data and software that creative agencies would never embrace.  I could follow this man.

And then he stumbled.  In 2006, Sorrell famously labeled the ascendant Google a “frenemy.”  Not quite an enemy, despite the giant sucking sound of $850 million dollars pouring into search from traditional ads that terrified and enraged him.  But decidedly – and this is where he unmasked himself – not a friend.  In a miscalculation of Oedipal blindness, Sorrell revealed to marketers that he either didn’t understand - or worse – was threatened by the most thrilling change in consumer-decision making the world had ever seen.  Google, a startup that was on a mission to organize and share the world’s information, was dazzling marketers every day with its wizardry.  Suddenly, the consumer was gaining some measure of control, forcing brands to evaluate their marketing and media strategies.  After all, knowledge is power, and Google had just shuffled the deck, changed the game and with transparency and relevancy, dealt brands and consumers a winning hand.  It was a tectonic shift, and everyone was delighted.

Except Sorrell.  For in that seemingly small slip, easy to walk back and not so significant, he showed the hand he was, well, holding.  A company structured for a different time, a top down world, in which transparency was the enemy, ruled by one man.  An era in which perception was reality, before people demanded brands stand for something, prove their purpose and engage in conversation.  Sorrell, age 73, came of age at a time when a big media buy could dictate consumers’ beliefs.  Coke is It.  Choosey mothers choose Jif.  Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.  No evidence.  No debate.  No reviews or ratings.  Just the so-called truth handed down from on high by powerful men who banked a generous commission on every dollar spent.

Vision alone cannot transform a company, and this is where Sorrell’s conviction that perception is reality crashed and burned in the Digital Age.  How ironic that the man who sensed the wave coming earlier than most would be swept away by the tsunami.  It would take more than dinner in Davos to transform an industry.  While markets and flacks might swoon at the words of the man behind the curtain, back home the digital natives were getting restless.  Requests to hire talent required endless layers of corporate review, frustrating new clients who had been sold lean, agile speed-to-market during a pitch.  It was impossible to attract digital resources, reward success, develop skills, promote high achievers or innovate strategy due to quarterly pressures on the price of the stock, a disproportionate amount owned by one guy.  All this despite reassuring words from London that once again there would be a record harvest this year!

Ten years after Sorrell threw shade at Google, the amount of media budget flowing to search increased 20X to $17 billion.  And as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella brilliantly re-organized the company to unleash a torrent of expertise across product lines, Sorrell doubled-down on a failed idea he called “horizontality.”  More sleight-of-hand than strategy, the trick was to create the perception of a unified team across the WPP network of agencies that pretended to work together.  It was an illusion intended to win and upsell business that was impossible to deliver.  Agency presidents, compensated to effectively undermine the strategy, ignored it, crippling front-line teams on the ground.  I witnessed the wreckage first-hand for a year as a consultant trying to help save one of these accounts, which had been terminally wounded by the sharp edges of broken promises.  Recent news from P&G and Ford indicate this horizontal jig might soon be up, leaving WPP in retreat from its Potemkin Village, unless new leadership aligns incentives to empower agencies to cooperate, not compete.

Of course, no story about Sorrell’s demise would be complete without a walk-on by the still employed Gustavo Martinez, former Global CEO of JWT, who lost his position but not his head after he was accused of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity.  Spared by Martin in an act of mercy or arrogance, depending where you sit, Martinez dodged the #MeToo bullet by a year, continuing to work for WPP despite costing it millions in legal fees, not to mention the screaming headlines that took a wrecking ball to the once shimmering JWT brand.

Sorrell’s decision to stand by his man was a stunning misstep, revealing how out-of-touch he had become.  WPP responded with the Full Martin, dressing for battle, stonewalling information, maligning a female employee, certain privilege would still be a shield, wealth a weapon.  Even allegations of racist and anti-Semitic comments in the press were treated as unworthy of comment or engagement.  It was a familiar Old World reaction to a corporate crisis, confirming that when it came to values of the digital revolution – transparency, accountability, authenticity, engagement – this Emperor had no clothes.

Just last month, WPP gave up and paid a confidential settlement to end the battle it waged for two years, seeming to concede defeat in the eyes of public opinion.  Days later, it announced it was looking into “an allegation of personal misconduct” by its CEO, Martin Sorrell, who, faster than you can say horizontality, resigned, leaving WPP weak and vulnerable.  No further information would be shared.  The world’s largest communications company had absolutely nothing to say.

The tragedy of Sorrell’s demise could be seen as Shakespeare-worthy, hoisted with his own petard, hubris his fatal flaw.  To some, he is like Lear raging on the heath, abandoned by his progeny who vie to lead the WPP kingdom.  To me, he is simply the wrong leader for a precarious time.  We have entered a time of disruptive communications, an era in which the collision of creativity and technology has just begun to shake the earth.  What WPP needs is a person of conviction and conscience.  A Man for All Seasons.  Or Woman.  They don’t have to be Sir Thomas More, as long as they understand the importance of not being #SirMartin.

Marty LaiksComment