Editorial: Gardening leave shows maturity of advertising

Gardening leave: a quaint expression for an apparently Draconian restriction that can force agency managers to take significant time out from the business. Indeed, if William Eccleshare takes the term literally, he'll have enough time to turn a weed-infested wilderness into something resembling the grounds at the Palace of Versailles.

Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP's chief executive and Eccleshare's boss, is maintaining his reputation for taking a tough line with senior executives who resign to join a rival. Which is why Eccleshare has been forced on to the sidelines for a year before he can complete his move from Young & Rubicam to become BBDO's European chairman.

This isn't the first time a departing WPP agency chief has been put into purdah: Steve Blamer cannot take over as the FCB worldwide chief executive until June, six months after resigning as Grey's North American chief.

Some may see this as vindictive and unjust. However, few will weep for executives being handsomely paid for their enforced leisure and who will have been well aware of the restrictive covenants in their contract when they signed up. What's more, Sorrell has a massive business to protect. He can hardly be blamed for doing everything possible to safeguard WPP's commercial interests.

Against this background, it's important that when it comes to enforcing gardening leave, common sense prevails. Six months seems fair, a year a little on the harsh side. Anything in excess of that might be construed as being motivated by spite and is likely to prove legally unenforcable. Moreover, gardening leave can be a double-edged sword. An agency with a reputation for taking a hard line on its enforcement may find it hard to recruit top managerial staff.

Perhaps the best thing to be said about the growing amount of "gardening leave" being imposed on the industry's top people is that it is a symbol of its maturity. When contracts were shorter and gentlemen's agreements more common, departure dates could usually be agreed on informally. Today, the stakes are higher and it's inevitable what has long been common in the City should extend into adland. Sorrell and his peers may stand accused of taking some of the humanity out of the business, but, from a commercial perspective, it's impossible to argue with them.