WPP and Sir Martin Sorrell – Now What?

Back from holiday and it seems the wheels are still turning. It was only a month ago, on April 14th that Sir Martin Sorrell exited his creation, WPP. Millions of words were duly filed. Speculation (much of it from outside the industry and ill-informed) around the future of WPP has been rife. Now Sir Martin has followed up his gnomic message to staff (‘Back to the future’) by confirming that he does indeed intend to start again.

Mark Read, one of WPP’s co-COO’s appointed post Sorrell has given an interview denying that the group is to be broken up (it would have been news indeed had he said anything else); and has indicated that the group’s focus has to be more on clients and less on their own internal organisational issues.

This latter point may be obvious but for a group that has sometimes appeared over-focussed on its own internal issues it still needed saying.

Like many choosing to comment, I have no inside information on what is likely to happen at WPP. For what it’s worth I suspect non-core businesses (of which there are an awful lot – Sorrell was always an acquirer, not a seller) will be sold. There is very little argument for the group to be in some of the smaller digital media businesses they find themselves in, short of buying in skills which anyway they have elsewhere.

Some acquisitions looked at the time very like a water-muddying exercise, designed to make any year-on-year comparisons difficult. Others created duplication and thus potential division within the group.

It seems likely that there will be some cleaning up.

The most significant name mentioned in that regard is Kantar. No other holding company contains within it an equivalent research business – which is not to say that owning a research business alongside ad agencies and the rest is wrong, just that no-one else seems to think it’s all that right.

It’s hard to point to client synergies involving WPP’s ad agencies and Kantar; indeed many clients look to their research agencies for an objective, independent view of the success of their advertising.

It has always felt uncomfortable having one group company assess the performance of, and even the bonus payable to another (many agencies are bonussed at least in part on results as measured by research).

It’s also no secret there’s been a tension in the past between GroupM and the more established Kantar research businesses (we can exclude Kantar Media from this, where the common ground is obvious). Some of the GroupM agencies have in the past been known to by-pass their sibling in offering to do research; whilst Kantar’s Millward Brown for one makes no secret that it sees itself in the business of providing communications planning advice.

It would seem to be a comparatively painless exercise to sell Kantar – painless on the impact such a course of action would have on the rest of the group.

Otherwise it seems unlikely that WPP will be split into multiple fragments – the core media agency / ad agency functions (and related key specialisms) still fit well together. Of course, they could be made to work more seamlessly together, and that’s a big task for any new CEO but that’s no reason to chuck the baby out with the bathwater.

Which brings us to what next for Sir Martin?

A key characteristic of the man is his innate competitiveness. He won’t be beaten – and any suggestion that he is somehow past it, that his last act will be in leaving WPP was always going to be proved wrong.

He’ll want to win; and to exit finally (whenever that is) when he wants to and on his own terms.

One intriguing factor to watch will be who gravitates towards him. Very many senior WPP staff have I suspect a far greater loyalty to Sir Martin than they do to the Board – many of whom appear to have little knowledge of the industry they bestride. Sir Martin has made many of them – will they be able to resist one last go round with him?

What exactly will he do? Who knows but it will be worth watching.

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