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."

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Market Risk & Control Manager

Up to £100k or £450p/d: Saxton Leigh: My client is a leading commodities tradi...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam