Was Sir Martin Sorrell invoking the tradition of Donald Trump when he told Financial News: "People are saying: 'Now we know what the W is in WPP—it's Wunderman'"?
Aside from their hands having a slightly similar physiology, such equivocal use of language seems to suggest that the pair might have more in common than anyone previously thought.
Sorrell also said in the interview—which was given from the perspective of a shareholder, of course—that "people" believe staff from Wunderman, which has been merged with J Walter Thompson, have been promoted by Mark Read, Sorrell's replacement as WPP chief executive, over the heads of more talented people. There was a feeling of "sycophancy" among these "people", he went on. Read was, of course, formerly the worldwide chief executive of Wunderman, as well as Sorrell’s loyal lieutenant for many years.
That doesn’t seem to matter much to Sorrell, who went on to accuse Read of making "terrible mistakes" (and that language has a similar ring to that of Trump) since he took over. What’s more, the people running WPP now feel "burdened". "I know that to be the case," Sorrell added, a little less conspiratorially.
Certainly, Wunderman (and its key personnel) was given the whip hand in the merger with JWT, but that’s because it was in the ascendancy, while JWT most evidently was not. Read and Mel Edwards, previously Wunderman EMEA chief executive but now his replacement, had done a brilliant job in turning around the fortunes of this failing network. It seems sensible, then, that Read would turn to those he knows and trusts to do the same to the failing WPP.
But that doesn’t play to the Sorrell narrative. This week, he announced that his new company, S4 Capital, had doubled in size following acquisitions and office openings.
"Within nine months, your company now has approximately 1,300 people in 18 countries and a market capitalisation of around £600m ($750m)," he told shareholders. Note the use of "your" company rather than "my", showing that he is not quite so possessive of S4 Capital as he was of WPP. It might also have been a move to deflect pressure after two shareholder advisory groups, Glass Lewis and Institutional Shareholder Services, expressed concern at the company’s pay policy (which, to seasoned Sorrell watchers, looks very familiar).
Sorrell also revealed that he was searching for relationships that were both deeper and bigger—or "whoppers", as he described them. Let’s hope that the "people" who are feeding him information about those tasked with clearing up the mess they inherited at WPP aren’t telling him those.
Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign.