Apres Sorrell le deluge says David Jones of Havas

Well he is the boss of a French company and speaks good French, although Havas CEO David Jones (left) was chatting to Campaign in English when he remarked that WPP would collapse on its nose if and when CEO Sir Martin Sorrell departs.

Sorrell, of course, has been under fire from WPP shareholders over his over-generous (in their eyes) compensation of £13m in 2011. WPP now says it’s ‘consulting’ with shareholders although it’s hard to see what exactly it’s consulting about, 60.9 per cent have said that Sorrell is paid too much, which is pretty clear.

Anyway Jones (who gets by on about £2m a year at the much smaller Havas) said this of WPP, its shareholders and boss.

“I think where they see a business leader spectacularly get it wrong and get a massive reward for it, they do have a problem.

“My personal view on Sorrell is, as a competitor, I think if he were to resign and leave over this, it would be a great thing for us.

“If I was a shareholder, I would hope and pray he doesn’t leave, because the day that Sorrell leaves WPP, I’ll be licking my lips and rubbing my hands together, because no-one else is going to be able to go in after Sorrell and keep that company in the position it’s in, and it will start to dramatically decline.”

This is a bit cheeky but is he right? Can anyone else run WPP, which only yesterday bought digital agency giant AKQA for $540m?

WPP is very much Sorrell’s invention (he founded the company 25 year ago) and re-invention; originally he sought to build up a quoted business based on design companies, only switching focus to advertising when he saw the opportunity for an opportunistic bid for US agency giant JWT, whose shares were lowly-rated on Wall Street.

Since then he’s expanded big time into media agencies, research (TNS remains his biggest buy at £1.1bn) and digital (now re-inforced with AKQA) with a particular predilection for China and India.

Shareholders, though, haven’t done that brilliantly out of it all recently, seeing no real growth for the last ten years despite the company becoming much, much larger. The same could be said, though, of investors on the London Stock Exchange generally, at least WPP has not lost value.

The fear (for them) is that WPP is a sprawling collection of hundreds of companies and it’s a moot point if anyone else really knows how to manage them all, apart from the driven micro-manager himself. Certainly there’s no heir apparent.

A likely candidate to take over from Sorrell when the 67 year-old calls it a day (which could be as soon as next year if shareholders continue to annoy him) is Jones himself. He’s 20 or so years younger and, although an account man through and through (Sorrell used to work in agency finance at Saatchi & Saatchi) has gained valuable experience of the wider marcoms sector, first as number two to Havas majority owner Vincent Bollore and now as CEO. He’s also a big digital enthusiast, de rigeur these days.

Seen in that light his comments seem injudicious. But maybe he doesn’t want the job anyway.

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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.