My campaign: Martin Sorrell on how the legend of WPP was born
A view from Martin Sorrell

My campaign: Martin Sorrell on how the legend of WPP was born

When The Times carried a front-page story about wire-basket manufacturer Wire and Plastic Products' audacious takeover of the JWT Group, the legend of WPP was born.

There are so many moments to choose from during my time in the communications business. It could be the time my partner Preston Rabl and I met Wire and Plastic Products’ managing director Gordon Sampson in 1985 at the Dartford wireworks, smelling of vinegar and chips, after a rushed lunch in a fish-and-chip shop on Dartford High Street because Gordon wouldn’t spring for lunch.

It might be being personally welcomed by chairman and chief executive Don Johnstone in the lobby of J Walter Thompson Company on Lexington Avenue in 1987 after the successful "hostile" takeover, and just before finding that the freehold Tokyo building, which Morgan Stanley valued for takeover defence purposes at $30m, was worth $200m-plus.

Possibly it was receiving David Ogilvy’s first public written apology typed, as was his wont, on Château de Touffou notepaper, after calling me an "OLS" at the height of the "hostile" bid for Ogilvy in 1989. It could be throwing the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game in 2000, just before seeing Warren Hellman of Hellman & Friedman to agree terms for the merger with Young & Rubicam following a breakdown in negotiations. Or acquiring Ed Meyer’s Grey in 2005 and managing to service hitherto unserviceable combinations of clients in the same group.

Or defeating both Havas, in the battle for CIA in 2001, and Publicis, in the battle for Cordiant in 2003, both of which marked the start of French hostilities towards WPP. Or defeating GfK in the battle for Taylor Nelson Sofres in 2008.

Or, in a former existence, the restructuring of Saatchi & Saatchi Compton, relegating Compton Advertising Inc to a minority interest in a subsidiary of Saatchi & Saatchi Company plc in 1977, and the acquisition, after, of Dorland Advertising in 1981.

All these, however, pale into insignificance in comparison with the following four events.

First, when I landed at Heathrow Airport on a Saturday morning in 1987, after the final all-night negotiation session with JWT, to be met by Len Spooner of BA Special Services with a copy of The Times carrying a front- and back-page story about the wire-basket manufacturer Wire and Plastic Products’ takeover of JWT Group. My parents were incredulous that The Times, to them a notoriously anti-Semitic newspaper in pre-WWII times, could feature such a story about the exploits of a little Jewish boy.

My parents were incredulous that The Times could feature such a story about the exploits of a little Jewish boy

Second, the occasions in the 1990s, and then from 2000 until today, when WPP established clear global leadership in our industry. To re-establish British leadership (after Saatchi & Saatchi) in an industry that was so US-centric was very motivating and satisfying, both to me and my colleagues.

Third, building WPP by welcoming JWT, Ogilvy, Y&R, Grey, 24/7 Real Media and TNS, among others; by creating Group M, including Xaxis and Essence; by emphasising well before others the importance of Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe, and of digital capabilities along with a global client and countrycentred approach; by winning year after year the world’s best creative and effectiveness holding company awards; by pioneering the Atticus Awards for original written thinking and WPP Fellowship Awards for young talent, along with Partnership Awards for integrated marketing client successes; by originating Stream digital conferences and Annual Sustainability and Pro Bono Reports, culiminating in the big six joining forces to promote the UN secretary-general’s Development Goals; and, most importantly, providing a livelihood directly or indirectly for 200,000 people and their 500,000 or so dependents.

And lastly, when in September 2018 Derriston (to be renamed S4 Capital) was relisted on the London Stock Exchange – the start of a new journey exploring digital content, first-party data and digital media planning and buying; the start of my third journey in our industry over the past 40 years or so, about 10 years less than Campaign. Happy half-centenary!

Martin Sorrell is the founder of WPP and executive chairman of S4 Capital

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