Sorrell & The Peanut Allergy

In the Cannes Lions week, Sir Martin Sorrell, Founder and Former-CEO of WPP and now Executive Chairman of S4 Capital, made a few appearances on stage and in smaller get-togethers, mentioning each time that S4 was only a “peanut in comparison to WPP” but alas some can be “allergic to peanuts”.

“If you want to reach me, write to” it was a series of these simple yet quintessential Sorrell-style comments that mark all his appearances at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2018.

Arguably, this could not have been an easy Cannes Lions for Mr Sorrell. After all, till last year, as Founder and then CEO of WPP, he was the most powerful ad boss, taking home the Holding Company of the Year award every year.

Much changed in the second quarter of 2018. The press leak of a CEO-investigation, forced exit, tsunami of eulogies, news of the ‘return’, formation of S4 Capital, brothel scandal and now a bidding war against WPP itself – if it was possible, Mr Sorrell has been busier than before, making it clear he is not going anywhere.

The news was not welcomed by all –– WPP board members criticized WPP Chair for the lack of a no-compete clause that has eventually seen Mr Sorrell outbid WPP to acquire Dutch digital production company MediaMonks, despite the threat that this would cost him his good-leaver bonus of GBP 20 million.

At Cannes Lions, Mr Sorrell’s moment to address all scandals had come, and he took it. Not only did he deny the allegations but he also called out WPP for not investigating the first leak in April, which had led to media reports of WPP investigating Mr Sorrell on charges of ‘personal misconduct’.

“That was the most damaging thing, and while I have requested it, there has been no investigation whatsoever in it,” he said.

On charges of ill treating his colleagues, Mr Sorrell said, “I agree I can be difficult sometimes to get along with, but if you are faulting me for holding high standards, then mea culpa.”

During his on-stage conversation with author Ken Auletta, after addressing the ‘elephant’ in the room around the allegations, Mr Sorrell also spoke about his company S4 Capital, which he said is based on his learnings from outside WPP and observations on industry trends of the future.

“S4 is only a peanut in comparison to WPP but yes, people can be allergic to peanuts,” he said, once again in very Sorrell-style.

On WPP’s leadership dilemmas, Mr Sorrell suggested that interim joint COOs Mark Read and Andrew Scott should be appointed Joint CEOs on a permanent basis. “One on their own would not be sufficient, but together, they can be a very powerful and potent combination.” Was this his way of saying it would take two to replace him? Perhaps, but it is not as if WPP is listening to him at the moment and the holding company is yet to announce the eventual succession plan.

In every conversation that the Arabian Marketer had during the festival, Mr Sorrell was a definite mention. His situation has changed, and even now people may love him or hate him, but they agree that he has a fire that cannot be put out.

On Cannes Lions Learning:
“I’ve learned two things — never do an interview with Ken Auletta, and never give a press conference”

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