Is Adam Crozier the bookies’ favourite for WPP? How about a small wager on former Tag boss Steve Parish?

We may find out the result of the WPP board’s investigation into CEO Sir Martin Sorrell next week according to sources – Sorrell has been accused of “personal misconduct” by someone – although that still seems pretty unlikely with a gaggle of law firms on the case for both WPP and Sorrell.

Their services may be required following a verdict, of course.

Such a rapid resolution seems to imply the matter is pretty cut and dried: he did or he didn’t. Or maybe shouldn’t. Anyway Sorrell may find hunkering down with the WPP board following such an investigation uncomfortable to say the least. So, either way, WPP may be looking for a successor to the veteran founder and CEO, 32 years in post.

The internal runners and riders haven’t changed much since we looked at them a couple of years ago although Lindsay Pattison, now “chief transformation officer” of WPP, and Karen Blackett, formerly of MediaCom and now WPP’s UK country manager, have entered the frame.

Interesting Sorrell was asked in a recent results presentation if a woman was likely to succeed him. Unlikely but possible he said, suggesting that the two ladies didn’t then figure too prominently on any list he was aware of.

We reckon an outsider is most likely should the need arise. The defenestration of a CEO leaves a company in crisis and a steady and experienced hand is surely required. Only Mark Read and Eric Salama of the internal candidates have sat on the WPP board. Running a big PLC would be a new experience for all the internal candidates.

But such outsiders are also likely to be employed elsewhere on long contracts. And they may not fancy the task of reviving a company that seems to have lost its way. Taking on Facebook and google in the battle for media dollars is a pretty daunting task too.

So who’s available now?

Two names come to mind: Adam Crozier, formerly of ITV, and Steve Parish, formerly of production giant Tag.

Crozier (below), who also ran the Football Association in its not-so-Sventastic era and the Royal Mail, is the new chairman of Costa Coffee owner Whitbread.

Crozier found himself propelled into the position of joint CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1995 when irate shareholders (including David Herro of Harris Associates, now an eight per cent shareholder in WPP) engineered the departure from what was then the world’s biggest agency of Charles and Maurice Saatchi. Lots of other key execs followed, now mostly to be found at M&C Saatchi.

Crozier began his agency career in the Saatchi media department too, so he’s seen media from both the agency and media owner perspective – another box ticked.

He’s reckoned to have done a good job at ITV, helped by chairman Archie Norman as he was at Royal Mail by another wise hand in Alan Leighton, once CEO at Asda (with Norman in attendance) and now chairman of the Co-op. Crozier would probably be top of any headhunter’s list.

Would he want the job? Not necessarily; he’s made his money and taken some flack in his time, notably at the FA. Chairman of Whitbread is a pretty comfortably billet. He’s also had the good fortune to work with supportive chairmen. Would WPP’s Roberto Quarta fit that description? If Leighton were free it might be different…

Parish (below), now chairman and co-owner of Crustal Palace FC, is an intriguing possibility. He rose to the top of print repro company The Adplates Group (his father was a print union official) and rebranded it successfully as Tag (or TAG if we must).

Parish could see that the print world was changing and aligned Tag closely with ad agencies, providing in-house production for them. He also helped numerous agencies in their early days, notably Johnny Hornby’s CHI (Hornby is another contender, of course) which began life in a Tag office in Soho.

Tag prospered mightily, going on to work for clients too and becoming international. Parish, with his long-time CFO Richard Jameson, realised that production was a more stable business than creating advertising. Tag stayed on the case when the agency was fired and clients were less bothered by conflict issues. Sometimes being under the radar, even for someone as naturally ebullient as Parish, was an advantage. Production of course, via majority-owned Hogarth, is a big and growing part of WPP’s current offer.

Tag was sold to Williams Lea, part of Deutsche Post DHL in 2011 for a sum variously estimated at up to £300m, netting Parish a rumoured £80m. Last year it was sold to private equity outfit Advent International having failed to fly in the post-Parish era.

Parish hasn’t run a PLC and hardly needs the money (neither, though, does Sorrell who has a fortune of at least £200m.) But he gets marketing services and is a proven entrepreneur. He’s also an inspiring and approachable leader although hardly a softie. In the charisma stakes only Hornby of the other contenders is in the same league and the two remain pals – which is intriguing. Parish and Hornby for WPP? Fasten your seatbelts…

But, of course, there might not be a vacancy – for a couple of years at least.

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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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