CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/WPP'S NON-EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN - Is Lewinton the right man to be WPP's chairman? TI's chairman could suffer from a lack of credentials in the US, John Tylee says

Unless you're a keen student of corporate trivia, it's doubtful you can name WPP's non-executive chairman. And its group chief executive? Well, that's a different matter entirely. Martin Sorrell isn't just the autocratic ruler of the global communications giant he founded, but its public personification as well.

Unless you're a keen student of corporate trivia, it's doubtful you can name WPP's non-executive chairman. And its group chief executive? Well, that's a different matter entirely. Martin Sorrell isn't just the autocratic ruler of the global communications giant he founded, but its public personification as well.

WPP is emphatically Sorrell's show and if he could get away without having a chairman in place, he almost certainly would. Alas for him, his freedom to manoeuvre is constrained by the need to honour promises and massage egos within the group while satisfying City and investor requirements outside it.

As WPP's chairman - Hamish Maxwell, the septuagenarian ex-Philip Morris chief, in case you're wondering - prepares to call it a day, Sorrell is required to name a replacement.

But his expected appointment of Sir Christopher Lewinton, the chairman of the engineering group TI and a director of Sorrell's newly acquired Young & Rubicam, has left the City underwhelmed and some financial commentators unimpressed.

Lewinton, 68, once said to be 'blessed by a permanent suntan', has been having a rough ride of late, mainly because his pounds 1.36 million salary package is in stark contrast to poorly performing TI shares. While acknowledging his triumph at turning round TI in the 80s, his critics suggest he has run out of intellectual firepower. In short, that he's a busted flush.

'Surely,' The Sunday Telegraph moaned, 'one of Britain's brightest businesses can do better.'

Why, it asks, has Sorrell settled for Lewinton when he really needs somebody who can open client doors and schmooze the American investors who account for more than 40 per cent of WPP's shareholder base. 'Having an American chairman is very important,' Richard Humphreys, the former Saatchi Worldwide and N W Ayer boss, says. 'If not, you should at least pick somebody who will play well in the US.'

Lewinton's spokesman will say only that he is 'delighted' to have made the shortlist. WPP's line is that he is still under consideration, that no formal offer has been made and that the board has set itself no deadline by which to settle the matter. However, industry sources suggest the directors have been taken aback by the savagery of some of the sniping, scuppering Lewinton's chances. Sorrell could not be reached for comment.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that WPP fills the role. One reason is that Sorrell must show the City he is taking action in the wake of WPP's recent poor stock performance. The other is because British institutional investors demand a strong, independent chairman who will keep a check on any possible abuse of power.

While there's no impugning of Sorrell's integrity, investors will doubtless justify their caution by pointing to last week's dramatic events at Tomkins, where Greg Hutchings quit as the chief executive amid claims that he used company jets for private travel and that both his wife and housekeeper were on the company payroll.

His resignation followed a probe by the newly installed chairman David Newlands, Sorrell's replacement as the Saatchis finance director in the late 80s.

'Martin may wish he could combine the chairman and CEO roles but the Hutchings affair demonstrates why he can't,' a senior executive of one of the world's biggest communications groups points out. 'His problem is that he wants somebody who will be acquiescent but who will also satisfy the City.'

Sorrell is bound by obligations made to the Y&R management at the time of his pounds 3 billion purchase earlier this year that he would ensure the network's voice continued to be heard at the highest levels by selecting WPP's new chairman from the Y&R camp.

Even before the Y&R deal, Sorrell is understood to have discussed the chairmanship with a number of senior businessmen in the US without much success.

Peter Fitzpatrick, international president of Gundersen Partners, the New York-based headhunting company that has filled large numbers of top-level agency posts, isn't surprised that major leaguers such as Jack Welch, soon to retire as General Electric's boss, have not been tempted.

Why? Partly because of Sorrell's domination of WPP, which makes an incoming chairman unsure of his remit and, potentially, a poodle. But there's a more fundamental reason. 'I don't think most major players would regard jobs like these as any more than an interesting opportunity,' Fitzpatrick remarks. 'They still see the ad world as immature when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.' The addition of Y&R to WPP's stable does not seem to have increased Sorrell's options. He is said to have offered the job to Tom Bell, Y&R's chief executive, but Y&R sources believe Bell would not have accepted the job.

Irrespective of the pair's falling out, Bell was not prepared to relocate to London. Warren Hellman, the West Coast investor and Y&R director, who was also mooted, has declared himself too busy.

Where all this leaves Lewinton is an open question. With his mid-Atlantic accent, which belies his modest origins, his connections with Sorrell pre-date Y&R by many years and go back to the time when Sorrell worked for Lewinton's friend, Mark McCormack, the father of sports sponsorship.

Lewinton's defenders insist he has been unfairly portrayed, having fallen foul of the City, which resents any company chief earning a large salary and is forgetful of his achievements at TI.

'TI was going down the toilet and he turned it around,' someone who knows him well says. 'He may be 68 but he's still sharp and bright and will work until he drops. He still has lots to offer.'

Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content