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A tale of two business knights: the Sorrell and Green approaches to a disrupted business world

It may be some comfort to WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell that he’s been replaced as many people’s business baddie – on account of his £70m pay – by Sir Philip Green, boss of Arcadia and, until a year or so ago, BHS which has collapsed into administration.

Sorrell no doubt regrets the demise of BHS and the bleak future facing its 11,000 staff and 20,000 pensioners. BHS may well have been destined for the knacker’s yard without the dubious ministrations of Dominic Chappell – who bought it from Green for £1. It may not have succeeded even if Green (below, facing a Parliamentary Committee) had not extracted £400m in dividends although that money would surely have helped. Certainly it’s hard to see a role for BHS in the digital world that Sorrell – and the world’s more successful retailers – inhabit.

But there’s another plus for Sorrell – if that’s the right word – in all this. Sorrell’s a builder not an asset stripper. Yes he gets paid a mind blowing amount but, over the past decade anyway, WPP has steered away from the rocks and delivered impressive returns to its shareholders.

My former colleague Anthony Hilton, writing in the London Evening Standard, describes how the Sorrell approach differs from that of so many so-called business leaders. The headline – “Sorrell solves the productivity puzzle” – is actually misleading, the article doesn’t say that. But Sorrell has analysed it accurately, blaming it on business people frightened to invest and take any kind of chance in a disrupted business world. Sorrell’s particular beef is clients not spending enough on brand building, of course.

Now some would argue that Sorrell’s very own holding company model inhibits the kind of investment companies need. Certainly individual agency networks struggle to re-invent themselves, as, arguably, they need to do because the money required goes into holding company coffers and then, mostly, to shareholders. Including, of course, holding company management. Or is wasted on so called ‘transformative’ deals when it would be better spent on more and better staff.

Be that as it may, if you had to pick one of these noble knights as your boss it’s pretty obvious which one you would go for.

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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.
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