The Interview: Celebrating 60 and two decades of worldwide growth

Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive Of WPP
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The Independent Online

Twenty years ago this summer Sir Martin Sorrell embarked on one of 1985's more unlikely sounding ventures, even for the go-go years of the Thatcher boom.

Twenty years ago this summer Sir Martin Sorrell embarked on one of 1985's more unlikely sounding ventures, even for the go-go years of the Thatcher boom.

As plain Martin Sorrell he took control of a company with a £1m market value, which made teapots and wire baskets for supermarkets, with a plan to use it to build a multinational advertising and marketing group.

Two decades later WPP has a market value of £7.7bn and Sir Martin, knighted in 2000, has just celebrated his 60th birthday.

Widely considered to have been close to collapse in the recession of the early 1990s, WPP survived to become one of the biggest success stories in British business, and there is more to come.

"I can't conceive of myself retiring," says Sir Martin, who spent nine years as finance director at Saatchi & Saatchi before deciding that taking orders from Charles and Maurice was no longer for him.

"I was 40 years old, I had a bad attack of the male menopause, I think it's called the andropause. I always wanted to run my own company and I knew I had to do it by the time I was 40. I wanted to find a small shell company that was a profitable base for us. WPP had a manufacturing business, no debt, freehold property and a management that I described as 'mature but not senile'."

The WPP that Sir Martin came to dominate is renowned as an acquisition machine, having bought some of the best-known advertising agencies, marketing groups and public relations companies around. Sir Martin, as well as being uniquely accessible for a FTSE 100 chief executive, is also probably the best connected. WPP is a broad church, it has a client relationship of some sort with nearly all the globe's major businesses and, perhaps most importantly, the people who run them.

Sir Martin, sitting at the apex of all of this, gleans a unique amount of knowledge about trends in businesses, markets and populations. His skill appears to be fitting all these pieces together for the benefit of clients and, crucially, for the benefit of WPP as well. "I like to think about things," he says.

Knowledge itself, however, no longer equates to power, reckons Sir Martin, reflecting on Sir Francis Bacon's famous saying. "Information is available to everybody so freely these days, thanks to things like the internet. But it's whether you use that information effectively that counts."

And if you can, then there is a virtuous upwards spiral to be enjoyed. "You get access on the basis of ability to do things. In advertising, you don't have to wait for Buggins' turn."

Sir Martin himself is a member of that group of constantly restless human beings who are so driven and focused that the conventional notion of a private life is rather irrelevant.

"I don't regard this as being work. That's the difference between somebody who founds a business and somebody that manages it or is a hired hand. I don't regard myself as a manager. I always think of the Bill Shankly quote about football not being a matter of life and death, it's more important than that. It's the same with WPP.

"If you start something, you have an emotional attachment. It is a lot of money to me. It's where my wealth is."

It is, in fact, worth £95m. That is the value of Sir Martin's stake in the business. Until last week he had never cashed in any of the multitude of share option plans he had been granted over the years, but a £9m tax bill and a rearrangement of his employment status has changed that. For the first time in years Sir Martin is to be employed directly by WPP rather than through a service company, an arrangement that has lost its fiscal perks. But his new contract from 1 April will not have any notice period, reflecting his personal attachment to the company. That said, if the company's other shareholders get fed up with him, they can boot him out without compensation. There will be no payment for failure.

Educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School and Christ's College, Cambridge, Sir Martin did an MBA at Harvard before working for Mark McCormack, the legendary sports agent, in the early 1970s, before ending up at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1977.

WPP was one of the quickest multinational creations of the 1980s. "In the 1980s we bought J Walter Thompson in 1987, which was 13 times our size. We then bought Ogilvy & Mather in 1989, which was twice our size. We then retrenched in the early 1990s and then grew organically during the rest of the 1990s and then started expanding through acquisition again in the new century, with Young & Rubicam in 2000 and Grey Global last year."

So where is WPP going now? "In 5 to 10 years you will see more Asian business in WPP, more Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and more marketing services, and in media with more measurable results, including the internet, which I see as an opportunity, not a threat."

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