The Interview: Celebrating 60 and two decades of worldwide growth

Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive Of WPP

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."

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape