Martin Sorrell denies 'slapping' Superunion's Jim Prior over Campaign interview

Former WPP chief was angry ex-colleague called S4 Capital 'speck in rearview mirror'.

Bust-up: Sorrell and Prior
Bust-up: Sorrell and Prior

Sir Martin Sorrell has been involved in an extraordinary public bust-up with one of his former lieutenants, Jim Prior, over critical comments that the Superunion boss made to Campaign.

The former WPP chief is alleged to have "slapped" Prior’s face in a meeting room at the recent Web Summit in Portugal, according to a front-page report in today’s Financial Times.

Sorrell, 74, is said to have come up to Prior, 54, "almost immediately slapping his cheek" and then "launching into a tirade" about his interview with Campaign.

About 20 people were in the meeting room, with witnesses saying there was swearing and shouting between "a taller man and a shorter one". At 6'2", Prior is likely at least seven inches taller than Sorrell.

WPP has written to Sorrell to complain after the alleged incident. Sorrell denies slapping Prior.

'What do you mean by ‘physical’?'

Alex Barker, media editor at the FT, wrote in his news story that he asked Sorrell whether there was any physical contact with Prior, to which Sorrell said: "What do you mean by ‘physical’?"

Sorrell was then asked "Did you touch his face at all?", to which he replied: "I didn’t slap him as you suggested."

The bust-up between Sorrell and Prior is the latest twist in the saga between the former WPP chief and his old company.

Sorrell ran WPP for 32 years and departed as chief executive in April 2018 in acrimonious circumstances, after an investigation into his personal conduct and expenses. He denied wrongdoing at the time.

Since then, Sorrell has started a rival, S4 Capital, and frequently criticised WPP – comments that have caused widespread anger among WPP executives, although few staff have publicly spoken out against their old boss.

Campaign's interview with Prior

Prior, who is British and has worked for WPP since at least 2005, spoke to Campaign Asia-Pacific in August 2018 when he was asked about the impact of Sorrell’s sudden exit and launch of S4 Capital.

"We’re not spending our time thinking about what Martin is going to do or not do," Prior told Campaign.

He went on: "We’re focused on ourselves. It’s not up to me what happens in terms of the leadership of the [WPP] company going forward, but we're in very, very good hands right now [with Mark Read and Andrew Scott, who later became CEO and COO] and I’m very, very supportive of that situation. 

"We’ve got our eyes firmly fixed on the future and I will say Martin is a long, long, long way behind in the rearview mirror now."

The story was headlined: "Sorrell a ‘very small dot in the rearview mirror': Superunion CEO."

A source close to WPP maintains now that Prior did not use the word "dot" himself.

Prior is a senior figure, although Superunion, a 750-strong branding division, is a relatively small part of WPP, which employs 130,000 people, including the Kantar business that is being spun off.

Sorrell confirms taking Prior 'to task'

In a statement, Sorrell has said that he "did take [Prior] to task about his previous comment that S4 Capital was a speck in the rearview mirror. I said when you are in a car crash, the speck catches up fast."

He added: "I did not slap him and there were no injuries or complaints on either side. This seems to be the latest attempt by WPP to undermine what we’re building at S4 Capital with a playbook that includes leaking data and using anonymous sources."

WPP said of the confrontation between Sorrell and Prior: "We take our responsibilities to our people very seriously and have raised this with Sir Martin."

Prior said: "I did see Martin in Portugal, but I’m not commenting any further."

Industry reactions

Adland took to Twitter to respond to the claims, with Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland saying that Prior is "comfortably" at the bottom of his list if he had to slap a colleague at WPP.

Rob Norman, a senior advisor to Group M, claimed that it would be worse to have been "metaphorically slapped in the face" by Sorrell.

Financial troubles

WPP has run into financial troubles in the past couple of years as analysts said it became overly complex and struggled to adapt as some clients brought services in-house and bought direct from tech companies.

Sorrell’s comments about "a car crash" refer in part to the decline in WPP’s share price, which fell from £11 to a low of £8, since he left – a drop in value that S4 Capital has pointed out in its own recent stock market announcements.

However, WPP’s stock has recovered to nearly £10 in recent months.

Sorrell is widely regarded as one of the most successful advertising bosses of his generation after building WPP from scratch into the world’s biggest ad group.

However, WPP’s share price fell more than one-third in his final year in charge from a peak of £19.