Sir Martin Sorrell has refuted bullying allegations, the sex worker saga, and addressed his hasty departure from WPP in one of his first public appearances since he resigned from the holding group in April.
He also called for WPP to investigate the various leaks that have tarnished his reputation.
On stage at Cannes Lions with author Ken Auletta, Sorrell denied any wrongdoing and said he’s considering publishing emails from ex-employees that would counter claims he was abusive and cruel.
He described his leadership style as "demanding" and agreed he was not the easiest person to work with, but said the claims were “unfair”.
When Auletta probed Sorrell further on the accusations, specifically if he used company money to pay a sex worker, he denied the “salacious” rumour but refused to explore the topic, saying he addressed these allegations the day prior at a fringe event at Cannes Lions, held by The Drum.
During The Drum event, Sorrell criticised the board of WPP for the way it handled his forced departure.
“What has happened could have come out significantly differently,” he said. “I’ll just leave it at that. There were other courses of action which were open to the company, which they did not take.”
He also complained he was not treated fairly and called out the various leaks that have been quoted in the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.
“When you have leaks of that nature, at the highest levels of the company, it’s a very difficult situation to maintain and relationships come under pressure in situations like that,” he said, when asked what angered him the most about how WPP handled his departure.
“To my knowledge, despite asking for an investigation into the leak, nothing has so far happened in relation to that.”
While WPP was criticised for its lack of succession plan when Sorrell exited, he said it had been in place for years in case he was “hit by a bus”. He added making co-CCO Mark Read and Andrew Scott joint CEOs would “be a very powerful and potent combination”.
S4 Capital: ‘A new era’ marketing company
Sorrell has now turned his focus to his next venture, S4 Capital, which he heralds as a “new age, new era” marketing company. He said the company wouldn’t compete with WPP as it’s operating on a much smaller scale.
“I've referred to S4 as a peanut and I can’t believe anyone would be worried about a peanut – although some people do have peanut allergies,” he said.
Taking inspiration from consultancies, S4 Capital will be built to tap into digital grow, Sorrell said.
“It will be focused on platforms that are much more flexible, faster and cheaper. It will be more coordinated and maybe even collocated, not just in terms of resources, but with clients too.”
He added it would focus on emerging markets, like India and Brazil, and brands driven by new media.
“We’re looking at a number of opportunities in what I would call new era, new age. That is not a condemnation of what WPP has been doing for the last 33 years. It’s just an acknowledgment that the business has changed. We in our industry tend to be stuck in the past,” he said.
While critical of WPP's failure to modernise, he said "holding groups will survive", but they will likely consolidate.
"They will survive, they will prosper. Whether there will be six of them is another question," he said, adding that the standout amongst them all is Havas because its 'advertainment' model set it apart from the rest.
Will he leave a legacy?
Earlier in the week at Cannes Lions, Sir John Hegarty made the bold claim that he didn’t believe Sorrell would leave a legacy in the industry.
His argument was that it is creatives like Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy that will leave a lasting impact.
It may have been a sore point for Sorrell, who refused to respond to the claim from Hegarty when asked by AdNews, having recently had his own legacy of the ‘horizontality’ terminology removed from WPP.
“Horizontality has been obliterated and eradicated from history. I have been and so has horizontality,” he said, the audience erupting in applause.
He did, however, admit that coining the phrase horizontality was a "terrible mistake" and an "ugly world".
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