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Who are the runners and riders in the race to replace WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell?

One of the biggest dogs that didn’t bark in adland was the succession to founder Sir Martin Sorrell (below) at WPP.

Once a year WPP told its shareholders that, of course, a succession plan was in place but never said what it was. Probably because there wasn’t one.

Now new chairman Roberto Quarta has caused much excitement by noting in WPP’s 2015 annual report that: “At some point we all leave our jobs. The question is when. Whether, in Sir Martin’s case, that happens tomorrow, in one, two, three, four or five years, or even over a longer period, we have already begun to identify internal and external candidates who should be considered.

“Shareowners should have no doubt that we already have a strong pool of internal and external candidates to draw from. I and the other independent members of the board will continue to focus on this in 2016 and beyond.”

Which doesn’t move us that much further on, except that Quarta seems to think that five years is about right for Sorrell, who’s now 71.

The excitement this caused served to draw some fire away from Sorrell’s 2015 ‘compensation’ which came in at a chunky £70.4m. He’s got another big payout coming for 2016 then the controversial LEAP bonus scheme is kicked into the long grass, leaving Sorrell (who already owns about £300m of stock in WPP) looking at a max of around £20m. But his dividends last year came to £8.5m so he won’t need to draw his state pension yet.

Anyway, who’s in this “strong pool” of internal and external candidates?

Sorrell has been with WPP since he founded it 30 years ago. Before that he was finance director of the brothers’ Saatch & Saatchi although he’s not an accountant. He’s not an adman either in the sense that he’s never been a creative or a suit – or, indeed, a media buyer which he would have been remarkably good at – but he’s spent nearly all his career in agencies/holding companies.

The same is true of his great rival Maurice Levy at Publicis Groupe (he used to be the IT guy), less so of Omnicom’s John Wren although he’s been at what are now Omnicom agencies for twenty-odd years and Michael Roth at Interpublic, who joined from a financial services company in 2005. Both are financial managers although, like Sorrell, not accountants.

If Quarta really is looking seriously outside WPP then someone with that kind of background – able to add up and, perhaps, take a dispassionate view of the excitable world of advertising and media – would seem to fit the bill. The world is awash with such folk but they don’t always work out.

When Peter Scott, latterly of Engine but originally of WCRS and then CEO of Aegis owner Carat (which WCRS bought back in the day) was squeezed out, he was replaced by Crispin Davis, a former Procter & Gamble marketer who moved to Aegis from group MD of United Distillers. Davis, deemed a success, moved on to Reed Elsevier, to be replaced by former Murdoch manager Doug Flynn. Flynn moved on to Rentokil (cue lots of jokes about rat catchers) and was replaced by former WPP finance director Robert Lerwill. Lerwill was not deemed a success, building up a market research division (since offloaded) among other things, and was, after an interregnum, replaced by Jerry Buhlmann.

Buhlmann was a media buyer who had, inter alia, set up the BBJ media agency with Nick Brien. BBJ is now Dentsu Aegis network Vizeum. Buhlman, still running the Aegis part of Dentsu and some Dentsu bits outside Japan and the US, has been successful. Not least in selling Aegis to Dentsu for £3.2bn in 2012. So could Aegis have saved itself all the bother of appointing from outside and picked Buhlmann, or one of his contemporaries, to succeed Scott?

jerry-buhlmannThe best media buyers are fearsome traders and they can certainly add up – although the numbers have a habit of falling in their favour. WPP has plenty of those. Buhlmann (left) of Aegis fits the bill too.

WPP’s GroupM is headed by by former JWT media director Dominic Proctor and ex-CIA (not that one) exec Rob Norman, GroupM’s digital boss. But they’re not far removed from Sorrell’s generation. The coming man is Brian Lesser, head of WPP’s programmatic division Xaxis and now head of GroupM North America too. The woman on the up in GroupM is Lindsday Pattison, former head of Maxus in the UK and now global CEO. She replaced Kelly Clark, once seen as the GroupM high flyer, who stepped down (of his own accord) 18 months ago.

As for WPP’s creative agencies, there’s no-one who looks like a Sorrell successor. Jim Heekin has done a great job at Grey but there’s the generation thing again. David Patton, a former Sony manager who’s also excelled at, first, Grey London and then EMEA, could be an outside bet if Sorrell lasts the course. But he needs another big WPP job in the interim. It’s safe to say that former JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez won’t be making a spectacular comeback. Not that spectacular anyway.

Eric Salama, now running WPP’s research division Kantar, has done a stint on the WPP main board, as has WPP Digital and Wunderman boss Mark Read. Kantar is the worst performing big chunk of WPP but that’s not necessarily Salama’s fault. Market research margins have been shot to pieces by online surveys. Read is a clever guy but he needs to get Wunderman motoring.

HIM_385120k1Last but certainly not least is CHI and The&Partnership’s Johnny Hornby. The personable Hornby is probably the nearest Sorrell has to a pal within WPP (WPP owns 49.9 per cent of Hornby’s CHI) and he could certainly carry out some of the functions Sorrell does: schmoozing big clients and appearing on public stages.

Squire Hornby has a life outside business too though and has himself said he finds it hard to see how one other person could do everything workaholic Sorrell does.

But he’s a competitive so-and-so though. When an account leaves CHI/T&P it’s not game over for Hornby, instanced by the agency winning back News UK from WPP sibling Grey. A friend tells of the time he was trying to reel in one of Hornby’s clients in an earlier life. The call came up from reception: Mr X is here, with a Mr Hornby. Johnny then joined the meeting, assiduously noting down client’s thoughts as though this was the most normal thing in hyper-competitive agency land.

Finally there are agency managers from other networks. The most likely is BBDO’s Andrew Robertson, a Brit (which may be deemed important) who runs Omnicom’s most successful network BBDO. An outside bet would be adam&eveDDB (also Omnicom) CEO James Murphy. Murphy and co’s earn-out from Omnicom completes this year. Murphy is highly rated by Sorrell who moved might and main to keep him at RKCR/Y&R prior to the adam&eve breakaway. He then proceeded to try to sue the pants off him but that’s business. Murphy, though, is rumoured to have his own entrepreneurial plans.

Sorrell’s successor needs to be three things:

1/ An accomplished and respected ‘captain of industry’ – WPP is one of the biggest companies in the UK FTSE100 and the biggest marcoms company in the world. Cue outsider. Or, maybe, Buhlmann.

2/An accomplished public performer – WPP has benefited from (most of) Sorrell’s performances as the self-elected ambassador of advertising and marketing. Cue Murphy (also chairman of the UK’s Advertising Association) or Hornby.

3/Someone who can see round the next digital corner: Cue Xaxis’ Lesser or, if they can afford it, someone from Google or Facebook. Or Buhlmann.

Guess that puts Aegis boss Buhlmann in the lead – but would he want it?

Answers on a (digital) postcard please…..

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.


  1. Why did you leave out Scott Spirit the head of digital, group strategy and Asia Pacific at WPP and a close confidant of Sir Martin?

  2. Stephen Foster

    Because I didn’t know anything about him Barry (this is often the case). But thanks for the tip.

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