UK companies need more executives like Martin Sorrell to give business a voice

Business

There will be plenty of people taking great delight in the resignation of Sir Martin Sorrell from WPP.

The 73-year-old built WPP into the world’s largest advertising and marketing group. Now, after allegations of financial impropriety, which he denies, and pressure in the boardroom, he is quitting.

We love nothing more in the UK than cutting folk down to size, particularly someone who is paid so much and is so high-profile. It’s almost like a national sport, of everyone piling in to give them a good kicking.

No matter that they built up a hugely successful enterprise employing thousands, and when they spoke or wrote or posed for a picture they were also promoting their corporate brand. Somehow, the collective view prevails: they got above themselves and therefore deserve bringing down.

They themselves discover a hard truth, that on the way to the top they collected enemies and “friends”, who, when the boots thud in, turn out to be anything but, preferring to desert them rather than stand beside them.

So it is with Sorrell. He presided over the rise of WPP, from Wire & Plastic Products, a small, Kent-based wire baskets manufacturer, to  a global giant, employing 200,000 people in 3,000 offices in 113 countries.

Sorrell made a fortune for himself – he was paid £70m in 2015, and in the last five years has received more than £200m – and for his shareholders – they saw WPP climb to become a business worth £22bn. 

Of course there is an element of schadenfreude at his demise – there usually is. There are many in the advertising and marketing industry, and in the City and media and politics who sneer at the very mention of his name (one competitor requires little excuse to refer to him as “the shopping basket man”). And mention of his pay packet alone is guaranteed to provoke opprobrium.

Whether or not his passing is actually merited, I have no idea. And I’ve never quite understood his business model – it was not clear what the centre brought to the party, whether the myriad individual agencies he acquired extra benefit from being part of the massive combine. 

What I do know, however, is that he will be missed. For Sorrell –  at the top of his industry, was that rare phenomenon – a senior business executive who spoke his mind, who did not shirk an interview, who took a call from a journalist, and told it exactly how he saw it.

The truth is we don’t have enough Martin Sorrells; we don’t have sufficient C-suite occupants who are prepared to talk about their work, their business and industry, to discuss the economy and how it affects them or the state of their sector. They remain largely hidden, unknown figures, preferring to “let the numbers do their talking”. The result is that the public cannot relate to their business, or any business, and we gain little insight into how the corporate world thinks and behaves. We’re left with a gaping lack of personalities identified with the art of making money, who are not pop stars or footballers. And into that vacuum step ignorance, lack of empathy and opposition.

Sorrell’s going removes another essential voice from an already restricted line-up. We are devoid of spokespeople for commerce, who present, from their side of the fence, the issues confronting the private sector and our major companies, biggest employers and tax generators.

Take away Sorrell and who is there? Alan Sugar? Richard Branson? I’m already starting to struggle.

As well as advertising and marketing matters, Sorrell would opine from a business standpoint on trends, human behaviour, education, training, employment, consumer spending, foreign affairs and how they affect multi-nationals, the EU, and the influence of social media. Yes, it was easy to satirise him for doing so, but who else was batting for their industry, and for business generally?

Currently, politicians, media and campaigners are able to ride roughshod over anything that involves making a profit. And frequently do so. Worse, they treat corporates and their bosses with ill-disguised contempt. But business’s leading practitioners are discouraged from putting their heads above the parapet, preferring to stay in the shadows, unwilling to share their issues with a wider audience, fearful of being branded as publicity-seeking, upsetting politicians and media, and getting knocked down by the City.

There they are: intelligent, leaders, with a fine grasp of argument and detail, right across what drives their employees and makes their customers tick, often well-versed and trained in delivering presentations and speeches, and they do nothing.

During the banking crisis, hardly any bankers defended their firms or their industry, no one went on the radio or TV discussions, or was on record in print or digital media, to explain that some bankers did good, and benefited their clients. The outcome was that the belief was allowed to spread and to harden, that all banks, their chiefs and employees, were somehow bad.  

Business representative bodies do not command enough attention. A starter for ten: who is the president of the CBI? Give up? It’s Paul Drechsler, who chairs Bibby Line. At least the CBI has a head. The Institute of Directors is currently looking for a new one, having lost Barbara Judge, who resigned in the wake of the leaking of a legal investigation into racist remarks which she allegedly made.

Business complains that no one is listening; but in order to be heard, business needs a voice. Sorrell had his faults – he could be abrasive, and would often inflame his competitors with his outspoken remarks. But at least he was prepared to speak, and people would listen. 

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm

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