We do have a succession plan says WPP’s Sorrell – although he’s not telling us what it is yet

To London’s gleaming new Ham Yard hotel for an IPA (agency trade body) do featuring Sir Martin Sorrell, the subject of much debate over the previous weekend when details of his humungous £36m bonus share award slipped out.

Sorrell (below) was there as the final turn in outgoing IPA president Ian Priest’s ADAPT programme, a heroic attempt to foster better relations between clients and agencies. ADAPT stands for Alliances Diversification Agility Performance and Talent. It might be roughly summarised (very roughly) as “we’ll speed up and do what you want if you (clients) stop beating us up over price.”
Sorrell was interviewed by Newsnight presenter Evan Davis (no real mention of pay, of course) and, at the end, Davis asked him what WPP’s succession plan was (Sorrell is 70). “There’s been one for years,” pronounced Sorrell, as though only an idiot would think otherwise.

Apparently the WPP board meets every December to talk this through, covering everything from SMS being run over by a bus on his way to lunch and what might happen in two, three or five years’ time. These discussions are, it seems, amicable and satisfactory. But you hardly need me to tell you he didn’t say what they are.

What he did say was that he felt that companies where there was some element of ‘ownership’ in the control mechanism worked better. Sorrell, of course, was the founder of WPP 30 years ago and, although he now only has a small percentage stake (worth somewhere north of £200m admittedly) he still runs the company as though it’s his. He said his approach to WPP was still ’emotional’ and he felt every triumph and reverse as keenly as he did in the old days. As WPP executives who suffer reverses would doubtless confirm.

Most of the discussion revolved around the dreary, if important, issue of clients beating down agency prices (as in Priest’s ADAPT programme). Clients should looks at “the horizon” rather than examining their boots, he said. He’s also no fan of intermediaries in pitches (maybe he was thinking of old foe Oystercatchers), observing that clients should know enough about the agency business to make their own choices.

And, regarding the vexed question of programmatic buying, he defended WPP’s Xaxis for keeping to itself the price at which it bought and sold online inventory. Clients had to ‘opt in’ to Xaxis he said, which, in any case, was “30 per cent cheaper” than they could buy themselves.

A recurrent theme (there were a few) was ‘data.’ Data could be used just as creatively (he meant honestly too, of course) as any other aspect of communications. One particularly far-fetched example (which eludes me, alas) had even the polite Davis scoffing.

So data seems on SMS’s mind even more than it usually is. That deal for Tesco’s dunnhumby could be imminent.

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