There are different points of view (obviously) on Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure. Columnist Dick van der Lecq wrote in Digital Market Asia, “He deserves a festive farewell tour. We should lift him on our shoulders and take him on a parade down the Madison Avenues of New York, London and Cannes. And finally, he should be immortalised in Madame Tussauds, alongside that other well-known Sir, Elton John”. In the same vein, Sam Balsara, chairman, Madison World and a one-time partner with WPP agency Mediacom is quoted in The Economic Times today saying, “To my mind, it is unfortunate that a person like him who has worked unceasingly for decades at building WPP had to finally end his career and connection with it in this manner. He should be given a hero’s send off for what he has achieved for himself and WPP. If he has built a rock solid organisation, it will continue to grow from strength to strength.”
But these were not necessarily the sentiments being expressed by WPPers, more importantly, ex-WPPers on Sir Martin’s ignominious departure. After the initial flurry on Sunday morning of surprised Whatsapp messages with forwards on the acrimonious exit, creativity took over. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword”, was perhaps amongst the politer messages doing the rounds, obviously a reference to the umpteen CEOs of WPP entities guillotined by Sorrell over the years. And they all had exited, as did he, without ceremony. Simply gone. You could in a way call it a company tradition. Years and years of good work, years and years of loyalty, all gone in a whiplash moment of Martin’s wrath. An off-with-his-head pronouncement, and gone. Well, it happened to him too. For Sir Martin, as he put it late night on Saturday before he abruptly quit, he was, “fed up and p….. off”. At least Sir Martin had the privilege of resigning because of his at-will exit employment clause, his sacking of CEOs in his vast WPP empire did not even give many of them that graceful option. So, there were not many a tearful eye for Sir Martin, at least amongst most ex-employees (current employees were more circumspect). Sure, nobody could take away from his many many and myriad achievements but, there surely was a shortage of sympathy for him on his exit. “The b…..d spent £274,000 on ‘spousal’ travel when he was pocketing £70m in salary every year. In India, we were being asked even the cost of toilet paper till we told him we prefer water”. Obviously there is a lot of venom surrounding Sir Martin.
The WPP empire in India is a giant monolith. It has more agencies in India than one can count or remember: JWT, Ogilvy, Rediffusion YR, Grey, Bates, Contract, Everest, ADK, TNS, Genesis Burson Marsteller, IMRB, Sercon, Portland, MediaEdge, GroupM, Matrix, Mediacom, MEC, Motivator, Wavemaker, Essence, Xaxis, Icon, Interactive Television, Millward Brown, Fortune, Mindshare, Research International, Wunderman, Landor, Encompass … it is almost an endless list. WPP rules the advertising business in India. In media alone, GroupM and its various entities have nearly 50% market share. I have often joked that if monopoly laws in India were better defined, the Competition Commission of India would long ago have asked for WPP to be dismembered and dismantled in India.
What does the Sorrell exit mean for WPP in India?
On the face of it perhaps nothing. But who knows.
For starters, CVL Srinivas who took over from Ranjan Kapur as Country Manager of WPP India, could well have his role redefined in the days to come when Sir Martin’s successor is in place. CVL’s elevation to this newly ‘strengthened’ role was a bit ambiguous as it is. Ranjan had all these years played only a ceremonial and titular role as WPP chief. CVL, it was rumoured, was supposed to boss over all the WPP agencies in India. In effect, it meant that Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy and Tarun Rai of JWT would ‘report’ into him. Having watched WPP from up-close, to me it looked a little difficult to have such senior satraps reporting in to a new lord. With Sir Martin’s exit, I would first watch this space on the role and future of the WPP India CEO.
With the exit of Sir Martin, one thorny issue that may resolve itself is the sale of Rediffusion. Diwan Arun Nanda, the owner of Rediffusion, was once a close friend of Sir Martin. Then, reportedly, they fell apart. And that spelt the doom of one of India’s most revered agencies. In typical Sorrell style, WPP tried to strong arm Nanda into submission but Sir Martin did not realize that Nanda (first batch gold medalist of IIM-A) was made of sterner stuff. Martin took away the Colgate Palmolive business from Rediffusion. Then Citibank. Then Airtel. Sorrell tried to kill Rediffusion. But as I said, Nanda was made of sterner stuff. Rediffusion has survived but is a pale shadow of its original self. The exit of Sorrell may take the personal animosity out of the Rediffusion sale to Young & Rubicam. Under new management, this could happen sooner rather than later.
A new boss at WPP Worldwide could well give the Indian operations more flexibility in acquisitions. To his credit, Ashish Bhasin of Dentsu Aegis has taken the high ground in this space over the last couple of years leaving WPP far far behind. For example, in the race for digital agency Sokrati, informed sources say, WPP did bid but with both hands tied behind their back. Dentsu Aegis won without a fight, or almost. Bhasin has over the last few years bought, besides Sokrati, WATConsult, Fountainhead, Happy Creative, Fractal Ink and SVG Media for the Japanese giant. As a result, the Dentsu offering in digital today, despite WPP’s GroupM being much larger in overall size, is almost equal if not larger, all thanks to these recent acquisitions. WPP has been lazy and lax compared to Dentsu Aegis for sure. A new WPP chief could hurry things up in India.
Contract Advertising saw a change in leadership when Rana Barua exited a few months ago. Grey last week witnessed the departure of Sunil Lulla. Actually some of the creative agencies in the WPP fold require serious re-visiting. They are not really in the pink of health. May be it is time to rationalise the portfolio. Bringing together Rediffusion, Bates and Contract under one common banner of Rediffusion, for example, may not be a bad idea.
Personally, I don’t feel sorry for Sir Martin Sorrell. It is said that a former colleague of Sorrell once remarked, “He expects people to dislike him so he doesn’t worry about it. It’s an invaluable armour”. The only time I worked at close proximity to Sir Sorrell was at the turn of the century, in the year 2000, when WPP bought Y&R, and as President of Rediffusion-Dentsu Young & Rubicam, I was required to present the agency credentials to him. And then quarterly reviews. To be honest, for some reason, there was always palpable fear in the air. Not that I had anything to fear because Rediffusion was performing superbly, but somehow the proceedings were not a review but an inquisition. Sorrell was constantly out to get you. He was rude. He was abrasive. I am glad I did not have to suffer too much of Sorrell as I moved out a couple of years later to head Zee.
As Sorrell sinks into the sunset, all I can say, is that ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’. Sir Martin Sorrell may have built the largest empire in advertising, but history is not necessarily going to remember him for all the right reasons. Even for a colossus like Sir Martin Sorrell, this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
(Sandeep Goyal worked at WPP almost 20 years ago. His recollections of his interactions with Sir Martin Sorrell are not necessarily very pleasant.)