Thinking

5 lessons for CEOs from Martin Sorrell

5 lessons for CEOs from Martin Sorrell 

There are few in the Marketing, Advertising and PR sector that could plausibly lay claim to having made as much of an impact on the industry as Sir Martin Sorrell. Born on 14th February 1945, after Cambridge and Harvard he started his working career at Glenndinning Associates as a consultant in 1970. Next he moved onto the sports agent, Mark McCormack and then James Gulliver Associates before moving to Saatchi & Saatchi in 1975. At Saatchi and Saatchi he was referred to as ‘the third brother” and he rose to the position of Group Finance Director. In 1986 he joined Wire and Plastic Products as full time chief executive a year after borrowing £250,000 and investing in the small company in Folkestone. He was then forty years old. He has been CEO of WPP since 1986, and under his leadership WPP has grown to become the world’s largest advertising and marketing services group. By 2013 WPP was employing over 170,000 people in over 110 countries and had revenues of £10.4 billion. His career offers some great lessons for CEOs or Managing Directors intent on growing their companies.

Play the long game

There is a lot to be said for longevity; without doubt Sir Martin’s long tenure in as CEO has been fundamental to WPP’s success. He first experienced the benefits of an acquisition led expansion while at Saatchi & Saatchi and his plan for WPP was to build a marketing services group using the same strategy. He started acquiring below the line agencies. He knew that success would not come overnight. Building services businesses takes time: be prepared and be patient.

Surprise your competition

After acquiring a number of below the line agencies Sorrell surprised the agency world with a successful hostile takeover of J. Walter Thompson in 1987. The deal was worth $566 million. Two years later he repeated the feat when WPP bought Ogilvy and Mather for $825 million. Two of advertising’s most established and prestigious names were now part of the WPP group. He followed this up with more acquisitions including Young and Rubicam in 2000 and AKQA Digital in 2012.

Be persistent

In a corporate sense Sorrell has come ‘back from the dead’ a couple of times. In 1991 as the world headed into recession WPP’s purchase of Ogilvy & Mather could have been viewed as expensive. The same could be said after the Young and Rubicam purchase, as the world plunged into the recession of 2001. Marketing is one of the first industries hit in any recession so an acquisition led expansion strategy can appear risky at those times. Sorrell’s emotional attachment to WPP is well documented and in those testing times, it wasn’t his Economics degree from Cambridge or his Harvard MBA that saw him through it was his sheer persistence and determination.

Keep focused on the vision

Sorrell had a vision for WPP in 1986 and remained committed to it. He followed his father’s advice which had been to “find a job that you enjoy doing” and to remember that “no matter how dark the clouds are, [you must] have no fear.” There were many challenges and plenty of dark clouds but Sir Martin always came out the other side. 

Work ethic

Even though Sorrell is over seventy years old he still travels a lot and works at a tremendous pace. His rapid reaction time is legendary and he somehow finds the time to answer emails within a few minutes of receiving them. He returns phone calls and respond to notes and messages. He reads monthly reports summarising the performance of all companies in the group and stays in touch with his managers.

by Miles Welch 
Partner at Waypoint Partners

Waypoint Partners are a leading growth advisory firm, working with shareholders and their leadership teams in the creative, marketing and technology sectors to grow and realise value. Are you planning for agency growth in the next 1-3 years? We would be happy to help you achieve your growth targets. Please feel free to give us a call on T +44 (0) 203 282 7598 or send us an email via angela@waypointpartners.co.uk. We look forward to starting the conversation.

Follow us on LinkedIn | Follow us on Twitter