Mel Edwards hits back at 'rude' Martin Sorrell over Wunderman swipe

Wunderman Thompson global CEO denies WPP boss Mark Read is handing out jobs to 'mates'.

Campaign Breakfast Briefing: Edwards and Beale
Campaign Breakfast Briefing: Edwards and Beale

Sir Martin Sorrell was "offensive" when he said that the W in WPP is Wunderman, according to Wunderman Thompson global chief executive Mel Edwards.

Edwards said she was "disappointed" to hear Sorrell, the former chief executive of WPP, portray his successor Mark Read as awarding senior roles to Wunderman staff as part of his turnaround plan for the holding group.

Read, former global chief executive of Wunderman, replaced Sorrell last year and appointed Edwards as his successor. He swiftly moved to merge Wunderman and J Walter Thompson to create Wunderman Thompson, a mega-agency of 20,000 staff across 90 markets. 

In an interview last month, Sorrell accused Read of making "terrible mistakes" and of promoting less talented Wunderman staff amid a feeling of "sycophancy".

During an interview at Campaign’s Breakfast Briefing event today with global editor-in-chief Claire Beale, Edwards described Sorrell’s comments as "rude and offensive". 

She said: "It’s genuinely disappointing to hear because Martin led WPP for a huge amount of time and hearing him make comments like that is not necessary.

"Mark doesn’t comment, he just gets on with the business because we don’t have time to comment about other people’s businesses. We just focus on our own.

"I felt personally that that comment from Martin was just a bit rude and just a bit offensive quite frankly, because when I was given the [global CEO] role it wasn’t easy. I was given a fully extensive interview process with Russell Reynolds, I had to do psychometric tests, I had to do interviews… so it wasn’t a ‘mates get the job’ kind of thing.

"When Martin ran WPP, he would’ve seen the performance of what I did when I ran EMEA, so that comment I found slightly offensive on a personal level.

"But actually his statement wasn’t true. If you look at what we’ve done with Wunderman Thompson at global level, almost everybody at JWT has been given a role – we have Toby Hoare as vice-chairman, we have Tamara Ingram as chairman… and I brought in new people that I felt could drive those businesses in the right way." 

During the interview, Edwards also rebuffed suggestions that the Wunderman Thompson merger was done for the sake of WPP trying to appear active to shareholders amid tough times for the business. During Sorrell’s final year in charge, WPP’s stock price fell from £19 to £11 and fell further to a low of £8 in February.

"The City is always happy if the business is performing," Edwards said. 

She went on: "Prospective clients are asking for a ‘digital-first creative agency’ or a 'mobile-first starting point for our advertising’, which is a definite shift from what was there before.

"What was tending to happen at a pitch, within WPP, is that Wunderman was leading those pitches, but we couldn’t do everything. Our DNA was digital, but we were coming together with other agencies within WPP to lead on those integrated pitches." 

Edwards admitted that bringing the two agencies together "is not easy". Even though the global merger was formalised at the beginning of this year, Wunderman and JWT are not due to be integrated in Latin America until September.

She did not have a "single answer" for how to create a common culture at a new agency, but more than once described the new-business pitch process as a galvanising force for collaboration.

"It comes with time," she said. "Creating a new culture comes with having a new vision, a north star, and getting everyone behind that north star. But having everyone sit together, when you pitch – that’s the best way to form a culture because people appreciate each other, recognise experts or generalists, so then they feel like they’re a team. It’s only then that you start creating culture."