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When Sorrell met Whipple: the rumble on La Croisette

In the blue corner, barefoot Brian Whipple, global CEO of Accenture Interactive, kicked off his shoes and sipped a pint of beer. In the red corner, Martin Sorrell, executive chairman of S4 Capital, drank water with a slice of lemon and kept his espadrilles firmly on his feet.

The Drum set up a head-to-head between the two men at a pub in Cannes. There were to be three rounds (or rather three points for discussion), and the packed crowd at the Drum Arms was spoiling for a fight.

Round one: is the ad industry still relevant?

The contestants answered yes, although Whipple struck a low blow with a weak defence of the ad industry. He said that just because advertising is low growth, it doesn’t mean it’s going away – instead it’s being merged with creativity and technology. He also pointed out that 41% of companies in the S&P from the year 2000 no longer exist, so why do communications agencies think that level of change should not be happening to them?

Sorrell tried to disarm his opponent with uncharacteristic humility, referring to his own S4 Capital as a “peanut or a pimple or a coconut” in comparison to the mighty Accenture Interactive. Then he laid into the traditional agency model, which he said was “not fit for purpose” and needs to “change violently.” The key is to go where the growth is, which for now means data and digital.

Round two: What should the holding companies do next?

Whipple demurred. “It’s not my area of expertise,” he sighed, adding that he has spent “zero minutes” discussing this topic at any Accenture meeting ever. Although if he had to make a couple of observations, he could see that the agency groups have been held back by their “founder cultures,” and that their “lack of technological skills presents challenges.”

This question played to Sorrell’s strengths – he likes nothing better than to pronounce at length on how everyone else should do their jobs. He declared that (Omnicom CEO) John Wren “hasn’t got a strategic bone in his body,” although in terms of performance he is “doing superbly.”

Sorrell then cast off his earlier humility and tried to give Whipple a lesson in how to run Accenture Interactive. He said that rather than acquiring 30 small companies, which are hard to integrate, he should go for one big one. “If I was Brian I would covet GroupM,” he said, and then went into some detailed financial calculations about a possible deal between Accenture and WPP’s media arm.

This was another scenario that Whipple seemed inclined to give zero minutes’ thought, although he was polite enough to say that there are some “smart, intelligent” people at GroupM. “Is this a nibble?” Sorrell asked hopefully.

Whipple explained: “When people come on board into Accenture Interactive they need to keep the lights on and keep on doing what they are doing successfully – Droga5 being a classic example – but their mission is, over time, to redeploy for solving a number of consumer problems, not just to keep selling more advertising or programmatic or digital media.”

The debate got heated when Sorrell laid into Accenture Interactive’s Droga5 purchase. He calculated it had cost $466 million, and questioned the wisdom of spending all that money — and paying it all up front.

Whipple put Sorrell in his place. “The value is not going to depend on some return of cash flow like if you’re buying a widget company,” he said. “That return will be dwarfed by the synergy opportunities of putting creative minds behind bringing stories to life and reinventing experiences, which include multi-year technology components that we design and build and run for clients. So the synergy that’s created to redeploy those creative minds in addition to ‘advertising’ you’re never going to know, unless you are on the inside of that transaction analysis.“

Sorrell’s comeback was feisty: “You’re never going to know either.”

Round three: How can the industry change the world for the better?

Sorrell weighed in with ideas about delivering a more effective model that embraces purpose, and finding ways to replace the job losses that tech is causing.

Whipple had a more millennial answer. He said: “My generation cares about the world absolutely, but the younger generation cares even more. It is good business to be at that intersection of creativity, technology and purpose.”

Judges decision: split

Whipple wins on vision and cool but Sorrell is still value for money — and he did say that there might be another S4 Capital acquisition later this week.

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