Paul Simons: working with Sorrell at Ogilvy (business first, creativity second)

Martin Sorrell deciding to call it a day isn’t so surprising despite the gossip about the internal investigation. Can’t believe he dipped in to the Farm Street office tea money or was doing a Harvey with the interns.

For me it is more about time, time to decide if the likelihood of choppy waters ahead was appealing or not. Creating a global advertising network from scratch to become one of the largest on the planet is genuinely awesome (an over-used American expression but appropriate here). Maybe quit before the world is thrown upside down again?

I have had an occasional relationship with Martin in the past where I got to know him from a distance. He once made an offer for our agency (Simons Palmer) in the 90’s which was a bit of an insult so we turned him down politely; he was on the phone immediately trying to persuade me we should sell to WPP. We didn’t but did sell to Omnicom several years later for a much better deal than the one offered by WPP.

My next close contact was when I accepted the offer to join Ogilvy as UK Group Chairman and CEO of the ad agency. Ogilvy then was under a lot of pressure due to client losses in 1998/9 and I walked in to receive the well-known hospital pass. Martin was on the phone regularly asking detailed questions on issues such as margins, payroll levels, etc., 24/7 literally.

What I quickly worked out was Martin was a bit like Brian Epstein was to The Beatles, Martin was a wizard with finance and helicopter strategy but not too good on the bass guitar. Like Epstein Martin was continuing to build a stable of talent. I found I couldn’t have a meaningful conversation about advertising. On one memorable occasion he just told me to do what the client wants, so counter culture to the world I had grown up in.

This helps explain the famous David Ogilvy quote describing Martin as “an odious little shit” because D.O. would be like Lennon and not suffer pumped up bean counter upstarts too easily. I suspect this quote will follow Martin to his Times obituary.

The tension between the creative heart of a good advertising agency and the management of a business is challenging, difficult to achieve, frequently the cause of rows and fallouts. In the case of WPP the driver of the whole operation was business management, done exceedingly well. The winners in the slippery pole contest for top jobs were, and still are, the safe pair of hands that put business first, creativity second.

At Ogilvy we hosted an evening with Eric Salama (WPP ex board member and now head of Kantar) who came to explain the WPP mantra to the girls and boys in Canary Wharf. At one point he presented a chart that showed Omnicom leading the creative accolades globally and WPP down the chart. Eric said that Martin expected everyone to try harder and do better creative work.

There was a lot of chuckling and cheeky comments in the Ogilvy boardroom, essentially saying it will never happen unless WPP has a heart transplant. Eric was not amused.

But Sorrell was the boss the who could open doors in a way most account men could never imagine. Now that he has decided to exit stage left he will go down in history as a rainmaker of biblical proportions and nobody can take away what he has achieved, love him or otherwise.

WPP and Sir Martin will be inextricably linked forever and no doubt will become a case study in leading business schools around the world. I imagine Martin taking on a professor’s role at Harvard and continuing to comment on the world’s economic trends.

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