How the ad king Sir Martin Sorrell reclaimed his crown
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How the ad king Sir Martin Sorrell reclaimed his crown

One of world's most influential businessmen, Sir Martin Sorrell, exclusively talks to Candice Krieger about his new venture, S4Capital, and how coronavirus will affect the economy

Sir Martin Sorrell
Sir Martin Sorrell

Sir Martin Sorrell needs little introduction. He is well known for building the world’s largest advertising and marketing company, making him one of the most authoritative and recognised businessmen on the planet, not to mention one of Time’s 100 most influential people.

For more than 30 years, Sorrell, 75, presided over WPP, the global empire he founded in 1985, before resigning in 2018. He grew it from a £1million “shell” company into the world’s largest advertising and marketing services powerhouse with a market capitalisation of more than £16billion, revenues of more than £15 billion, and profits of approximately £2billion.

And he is at it again with S4 Capital, the company he set up shortly after leaving WPP. S4 Capital’s mission: disrupt the old advertising paradigm and build a new-age, new-era advertising and marketing services model with a unitary structure. Its focus is purely digital. The emphasis is on ‘faster, better, cheaper’ executions in an always-on, consumer-led environment.

Founded in May 2018, S4 already employs 2,500 people in 26 countries. Under Sir Martin’s auspices, WPP employed 200,000 working in 3,000 offices in 113 countries; travel has always been a routine part of his working week. But as the impact of the coronavirus worsens and with the UK now on the brink of lockdown, Sir Martin is “staying put”.

He told Jewish News in an exclusive interview last week: “I went to Sweden earlier in the week and was due to go to Amsterdam, but I’ll be staying put in the UK for the foreseeable future. It’s time to lock down.”

If the coronavirus becomes a lasting pandemic, it will accelerate fundamental changes in the economy, politics and the workplace, not to mention the impact on travel habits, business habits and the way we communicate.

“It affects behaviour and I think there’s a question of whether it affects behaviour in the longer term,” reflects Sir Martin. “It will affect my travelling habits a bit in the short to medium term, beyond when hopefully this crisis, which is now a pandemic, subsides, if it does subside. It’s not an easy time.”

So what does the man, dubbed the Sage of Soho for his wise and accurate predictions on the global economy, make of the severity of the situation and its implications? Is it one of the most challenging times facing the global economy?

“I said on Newsnight on Friday [6 March] I thought it was like the aftermath of 9/11, but it is having increasingly characteristics of the financial crisis in 2008. It is becoming more serious. Countries are in lockdown.

“The irony, if there is one, is that the impact on China has lessened, but there might be secondary impacts as things take hold more in Europe and there are demand issues. We have had supply chain issues but, as European demand falls for things, that might roll back into China economically.

“It’s a very serious situation and for business in general, I think it will affect Q2 and Q3 and will wipe out the whole of 2020 in terms of growth for many companies.”

He continues: “Will hot temperatures knock the virus on the head? From what I’ve read I don’t think that’s the case, but we will see.”

He says herd immunity must be built up because he believes the virus will be around consistently each year, adding: “As I understand it, the only way you can deal with it is with a vaccination and/or immunity. The terrible thing is the more people that are affected by it and the more people that die, the more likely that we establish immunity from it so you have this terrible public policy issue.

“You get a short-term attempt at destabilisation at long-term benefit, but if you try to flatten it out, you don’t have as much resistance so you get a short-term benefit but a long-term loss. It’s a very difficult one for the government. Both companies and governments want to be seen to be doing the right thing. It does seem to be taking hold increasingly in many countries.”

At the time of writing, the Israeli government was reportedly preparing for full lockdown, having previously closed cultural and recreational establishments as well as schools and universities and banned indoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Foreigners could not enter the country, unless they could prove they were able to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

“The other thing is that the autocratic regions like China and, to some extent, Singapore are very effective at shutting things down because they can control things more easily, whereas more democratic or complex countries have extreme difficulty. This is terrible.”

Outside of discussing the coronavirus, Sir Martin found time to wish Jewish News and The Jewish Chronicle mazeltov on the reports of the ir merger. Can we survive in this era of intelligent digital advertising?

“I would guess they are more likely to survive together than apart,” he muses. There are few, if any, more qualified to know. He was educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Cambridge and Harvard and landed his first job, aged 23, at Glendinning Associates in Connecticut. After further experience at Mark McCormack’s International Management Group and James Gulliver Associates, Sir Martin joined brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi, becoming their first finance director. He invested $1 million in supermarket basket manufacturer Wire & Plastic Products. The original premise for WPP was below-the-line services (more targeted advertising such as direct mail) for which a fee is agreed upfront. In the two years after striking out on his own, Sir Martin completed 15 takeover bids, sending WPP’s market value soaring. It became the world’s largest advertising conglomerate.

And it has been so far so good for S4Capital, which from a standing start, has grown to a billion-dollar, and at one time billion-pound, market capitalisation, achieving a unicorn status in a little more than a year.

In 2018, it merged with MediaMonks and Mighty Hive to press on with its mission of creating a new-age, new-era digital advertising and marketing services platform for global, multinational, regional, local and millennially-driven clients. Third-quarter revenue was up almost 54 percent and 48 percent like-for-like, and gross profits up 50 percent and more than 44 percent like- for-like.The company’s client list
includes Netflix, Google, Facebook, Amazon, ByteDance (TikTok), Uber, Procter & Gamble’s Braun, Nestlé’s Starbucks at Home, Coca-Cola and Walgreens Boots. And the company is always searching for the next big “whopportunities” – clients with more than $20 million of revenue.

Sorrell is one of a rare breed who has the qualities needed both to start and to manage a successful business. He says some people are good at one and some at the other: “But it’s nice to try to do both.”
Sorrell did it for nine years at Saatchi when globalisation was a key issue; he did it at WPP for 32 years when it was a continuation of globalisation and the start of technological disruption, and now at S4, which is all about technological disruption.

Sir Martin was born in London in 1945. His close relationship with his parents and their influence on his career is well documented. He says he “felt robbed” when his father Jack, with whom he spoke frequently, died aged 74. He recalls how his mother, Sally, would drive people crazy causing “a lot of angst” by kvelling over him in Jewish Care’s reception area.

Sir Martin supports a number of charities, including his family foundation, which supports a variety of causes. He also assists leading universities, including Harvard Business School and Cambridge University.

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