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The SMART Interview #13 Sir Martin Sorrell

  • SirMartinSorrell
  • 18 Jun 2014

From its humble beginnings as a manufacturer of shopping baskets, Sir Martin Sorrell turned WPP into the world's largest advertising agency group, with audacious acquisitions of big name agencies like Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam and JWT. With 3,000 offices in 110 countries and close to 147,000 employees, how does he manage such a vast business empire?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Sir Martin Sorrell.

Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they learn?

Like most things it’s probably partly innate and partly taught. My dad was a huge inspiration to me. He wasn’t an entrepreneur, but he ran a big chain of retailers in the 60s – the Dixons of its day. I was fascinated by his business, and business generally, from a young age. I suppose I was unusual in that respect. I tried to read the FT on the way to school. So I inherited a love of business from my Dad, and knew that was what I wanted to do. I went to Harvard Business School and, like most graduates of that fine institution, I came out thinking I was going to run – and change – the world. But it wasn’t until many years later that I launched my own business. I started WPP when I was 40, in 1985, so I guess that means I was born into the world of business, but it took me a while to decide to be an entrepreneur.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with – is there a secret?

I think people tend to over-complicate this kind of thing. We are all born with or acquire from a young age certain attributes and abilities, which put us at an advantage or disadvantage to others. But it’s what we do with what we’re given that counts. Most professions aren’t brain surgery and there are no great secrets to success really. A willingness to commit yourself entirely to what you’re doing professionally, an eye for opportunity and an appetite for risk are important. And luck, of course. The advice I always give is to be persistent and to act with speed. I used to say, somewhat inadvisedly, that an imperfect decision on Monday is better than the 100% right decision on Friday.

Having a good idea is the easy bit in many ways. How do you take a good idea and make it commercially successful?

Again, it’s about acting quickly and with absolute focus and determination. And having a clear strategy and implementing it effectively. If you don’t address opportunities they turn into threats – others take them instead of you.

Sir Martin Sorrell
Image: Sir Martin Sorrell

WPP has a workforce of tens of thousands – what’s the best way to motivate people?

As soon as WPP expanded from one person to two people we had a coordination problem. Now we have 175,000 so you can imagine the challenges. We use a rather clunky word to describe our strategy in this area: “horizontality” – getting our people to work together more effectively for the benefit of clients and themselves. It requires broad cooperation across functional and geographic boundaries rather than people working just in their own verticals or silos. I always ask the leaders of our companies to imagine how powerful it would be if every one of our people knew what the other 174,999 knew – impossible, I realise, but I like stretching goals.

Has the internet changed marketing or do the old rules still apply?

The internet has changed things fundamentally. Digital and interactive marketing, programmatic buying and big data now account for about $14 billion of our $18 billion of revenues and Don Draper certainly wouldn’t recognise three-quarters of what we do today. We are Maths Men as well as Mad Men (although I should point out that the majority of WPP employees are neither, because 54% of our people are now women). Having said all that, the craft-based aspects of our industry – what people used to call art and copy – remain critically important. Creativity is vital in every marketing discipline, not just advertising. It’s still the beating heart of our business.

China is slowing down, the BRIC economies are wobbling. Which countries have the brightest growth prospects at the moment and why?

I find it sort of amusing that six months ago having a strong position in fast-growth markets was a virtue, and today it’s a sin. We remain bullish about the BRICs and Next 11 (which probably includes Iran meaningfully for the first time). Growth rates have slowed but they still outstrip those of the mature economies. If I could, for example, I would double our business in China at a stroke.

Does the always-on internet encourage us to live in the moment too much?

Sorry, what was that? I was just checking my Blackberry.

You must travel a lot – is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

I love to travel but I’m not sure I have a favourite country. Uruguay is wonderful – I’ve spent the last few Christmases there – but there are so many places I like to spend time. Italy, the US, Colombia, Australia, China, Brazil – I could go on.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

My various gadgets: Blackberry, iPhone, iPad etc. I like to be connected to our business wherever I am in the world (and whatever the time of day or night). It’s fair to say that my team are not looking forward to the day when all planes have WiFi.

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