Hard man in a soft-sell world

Profile; Martin Sorrell: He built WPP from nothing into the world's biggest advertising agency, says Paul Rodgers. But his huge pay packet can still upset the shareholders; Martin Sorrell
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THE MOST feared man in Adland was not always a hermit. In the late 1980s, as Martin Sorrell built WPP into the world's largest advertising company, he was quite willing to raise his profile. But since the recession hammered his company, he has been ducking - never more than during the latest row over his pay.

It's not surprising he has hunkered down. Half a dozen major shareholders went public last week to denounce a pay package that could see him earn up to pounds 31.6m over five years, almost 10 times his base salary. The company tried to compromise as fury mounted, but even its revised plan, a pounds 2.5m cut which looks likely to pass a shareholders' meeting tomorrow, came under fire from Legal & General.

Sorrell has other reasons to avoid the limelight. An intensely private man, he does not like answering questions about his personal life. He details his first 20 years in as many words. Even a horrific car crash when he was 18 rates only a sentence. "I was a passenger in a car and I went through the windscreen," he said, dismissing the possibility, suggested by a close family friend, that it may have changed his outlook on life.

Some who know him say he does not really like people, others that he is a skilful, calculating manipulator, sometimes even a bully. He comes across as superior: things will be done his way or not at all. One business associate said he would not want to spend a weekend with him. More diplomatic colleagues admit he does not make friends easily.

His admirers call him "the Karpov of the financial community" for his ability to see six moves ahead. Supporters, particularly in the United States, argue that his pay package is less important than the company's performance to which it is linked. "The British ... tend to focus on what you are getting paid rather than what you're doing to earn that pay," said Mark McCormack, one of Sorrell's early bosses.

"It's part of the British mentality that they seem to resent or be jealous of success."McCormack founded the sports management business that has turned athletes into multi-millionaires.

"Where I come from, there are lots of phoneys who are charming and glib," said McCormack. "Martin's not easy to get to know but when you do he's very warm and humorous." Sorrell's wit is such that McCormack quoted excerpts from 20-year-old memos at a recent party. "He's extraordinarily bright but he's not what you'd call a glad-handing people person."

Passionate his friends may be, numerous they are not. Clearly Sorrell has gathered at least as many detractors as fans. Among the epithets thrown at him during his rapid rise have been "ogre" and, though he has no such qualifications, "accountant" - the ultimate put-down in the arty business of advertising. Typically, Sorrell's reply to the insults is understated: "I'm sure my mother would not agree."

For Martin Sorrell can also be charming and even mischievous. It is a skill he uses to full effect when meeting clients - and victims. David Ogilvy, founder of the American advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, called him an "odious little jerk" when Sorrell made a bid for his company. But after the deal went through, Sorrell won him over in less than an hour's conversation, persuading the godfather of Madison Avenue to become WPP's chairman. Sorrell admits he passed up a chance to meet Ogilvy before the bid. "I should have gone and seen him in South Africa," he said.

Travel is an essential part of running WPP, but Sorrell insists on getting home at least once a week. At 50, he still sports a full head of dark, curly hair. His face is oval but his eyes, behind thick glasses, are those of a hunter. His voice is sharp, and he is quick to challenge verbal slips. He is in the office by 7.30am, and rarely leaves before 8pm. Only known non-business interests are family - wife, Sandy, and three sons - religion and cricket.

Sorrell was born on St Valentine's Day 1945 into a respectable London Jewish business family. His father was managing director of the electrical retailing division of Firth Cleveland. His older brother died at birth so he was raised as an only child, and he admits that his mother spoiled him. His father, on the other hand, was grooming him for business. For his barmitzvah he was given a personal organiser.

His schooling began at Haberdashers' Aske's boys school. At Christ's College, Cambridge he was better known for his financial column in the New Cambridge under the pseudonym "Harpagon", a Moliere character, than for his lacklustre studies in economics, for which he earned a lower second. But he came into his own at Harvard, where he earned an MBA. To this day he is comfortable on either side of the Atlantic, and even Americanises pronunciation of his name.

Sorrell began his career in 1968 with a spell at Glendenning Associates, an American marketing consultancy. But partly fearing he might be drafted in the US, he left after a year to join McCormack, who was looking for a bright young financial type to run his new London office. Four years later, Sorrell became personal assistant to James Gulliver, who had just sold Oriel Foods and was then running a management consultancy.

One of Gulliver's interests was Compton Partners, at the time Britain's 11th-largest ad agency. The Saatchi brothers were attempting to reverse into it, and Sorrell was sent to check them out. By the end of 1977, the Saatchis had recruited him as their finance director, where he vied with Tim Bell for the title of "the third Saatchi".

For almost nine years at Saatchi & Saatchi, Sorrell presented the respectable face of the advertising business to the City, an image its rivals lacked. But in 1985, after helping them to become the largest company in advertising, he invested in his own business. "I don't know if it was male menopause at 40 but I wanted to try to build a business." The vehicle was Wire & Plastic Products - a manufacturer of shopping carts and pet cages run by Gordon Sampson in Hythe, Kent.

Although the Saatchis invested in WPP, they are said to have felt betrayed by his departure. Given their philosophy - "It's not enough for us to succeed, others must fail" - it is easy to see why. WPP thrived. In less than five years Sorrell outdid Saatchi & Saatchi's performance over 15 years, becoming the world's biggest advertising agency.

People companies - those that rely on the creative talents of their staff - were a hot commodity in the mid-Eighties. But those that came to market often lacked the financial nous needed in the City. Sorrell's original idea was to buy up marketing services companies, letting the artistes get on with creating while he ran the financial side.

For a while the strategy worked brilliantly, and WPP's shares soared from less than 250p to more than 900p by early 1987. In all, he bought more than 30 companies, but the ones that will be remembered are J Walter Thompson, the 100-year-old fixture of Madison Avenue, and the Ogilvy & Mather Group, the world's fifth-largest ad agency.

The $500m JWT takeover came in the summer of 1986, when WPP was worth a fraction of that amount. It was one of the most audacious bids the City had ever seen. Madison Avenue was stunned. "Martin who?" was the phrase on the lips of corporate America.

But after JWT, smaller deals no longer impressed the market. So Sorrell went hunting for bigger prey. Critics say the $864m he paid for Ogilvy was too much, but Sorrell still defends the decision, though he admits it looks bad in hindsight. "The timing was wrong," he conceded. "The acquisition was made in the middle of 1989 which, as you look backwards, was probably the peak of the cycle."

The Gulf War crisis the following summer revealed the weakness of WPP's position: its colossal debts. The shares collapsed from 350p to 35p and there were fears that the banks would call their pounds 1.4bn in loans. Sorrell faced them down once, but by 1992 only a debt- for-equity swap could save the company. "We were over-leveraged," he now admits.

WPP has been pared down. A thousand jobs have been cut out of 21,000, and several smaller firms sold. The company is healthy again, though its share price is nowhere near its 1987 peak. If nothing else, Sorrell will be remembered as the man who built, then broke, then rescued an advertising giant. The question for many of the institutional investors that now own the company is whether Sorrell can take it forward from here.