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Simon English: Sorrell’s WPP exit may mark the end of the celebrity businessman era

Simon English
Sir Martin Sorrell has resigned from advertising giant WPP: REUTERS

By fairly common consent, there is something unsatisfactory about Sir Martin Sorrell’s sudden departure from WPP. “Sad and unfitting,” said a note from Investec yesterday, as it advised clients to dump the shares. “A tragic end to a remarkable career,” said Numis.

Without knowing what the allegations of personal misconduct against him were, it’s hard to know whether he deserves his fate or not.

What seems fair to conclude is that his time was going to be up before long anyway and that his style, the very approach that built WPP in the first place, feels outdated.

Leaving aside whether the business needs a complete overhaul — in truth, Omnicom, Publicis and other big ad giants are structured in a similar way — perhaps it’s just the end of the era of the celebrity boss.

Who even runs Omnicom and Publicis? Like you, I’d have to go to Google to check, and perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

One smaller rival tells me that Sir Martin’s “very domineering style” had begun to grate with clients and board members long before he was investigated for alleged misconduct. “What looks pugnacious externally, came over as bullying internally,” says my man in Soho.

He adds: “Big was meant to be better. WPP is suffering what its clients are going through, which is digital transformation. They want agile, nimble operations. It’s Tesla against General Motors. There will be pressure to break up the company.”

Sir Martin and Sir Philip Green are not the same, but they have (or had) reputations and profiles bigger than the companies they built.

That approach doesn’t feel right anymore; there’s a more collegiate style at the top of most big businesses, partly driven by there being more women involved.

For the press, outspoken bosses keen to offer opinions on everything, to make predictions, to be larger than life, are a godsend. For investors, that stuff has always been a sideshow and increasingly looks a cause for suspicion.

It’s a shame, but perhaps we won’t see the likes of Sir Martin at the helm at big public companies in the future.

Sir Martin’s outsized pay didn’t do him any favours when it came to a fight with his own board, but in truth neither that nor other issues would have mattered if people weren’t looking for change.

From here on, if Sir Martin wants to see his good name cleared, perhaps he should make public what the allegations were, just so he can fulsomely deny them once more.

He’s probably signed a non-disclosure agreement. He could unsign it.