Sir Martin Sorrell

Sir Martin Sorrell is marketing Marmite, but the type of Marmite 90% seem to hate and 10% just grudgingly respect. What everyone who has a view seems to agree, is that he has changed the industry (*).

His departure has prompted an enormous social media outpouring. My non-scientific analysis of this indicates a strong correlation between the creative aspirations of the author and the level of disdain and scorn shown.

And I can understand that. Many years ago I worked as a planner in the ‘then legendary’ Batey Ads in Singapore, run by the eponymous Ian Batey, a man who prized creative effectiveness above all things. Ian once re-shot a Singapore Airlines TVC at his own expense because the first shoot did not meet his standards and so was not even shown to the client. As a planner my job was, of course, to give the insights to the creatives to do their great work, but otherwise (and equally as often) to post-rationalise their great work “because it was bloody great work” and therefore needed selling. It was that kind of creative agency. And WPP bought it.

And they did what WPP do in that they showed how Batey Ads performed against other similar agencies across a host of revenue and cost-based measures and insisted the agency begin to meet their ‘norms’. I guarantee no other TVC was re-made at the agency’s own expense. And Ian left and this once great creative powerhouse was managed down and merged into something else and is no more and is another example that will enrage the 90% that believe that what we do should always be ideas-led and crafted and as ‘close to art as business gets’. And if you believe that you are in good company and you will surely cheer Sir Martin’s resignation.

But if you also believe that what we do should be taken seriously in the boardroom and valued by financial markets and that those ideas we generate should be given a global stage and that getting paid appropriately as an industry is important too, then you need to give credit to our best advocate.

Because that is what he was. My old boss Richard Edelman has given an excellent testimony to this here, despite the fact that the two clashed on many occasions.

One year I was attending Davos with Richard Edelman when he did what many Edelman employees have experienced and affected a ‘Richard switcheroo’. Richard was due to attend a working session with the leaders of the marketing groups and the global CEOs of all the major auto manufacturers to discuss their response to global warming. An hour before the meeting start-time he breezily informed me he had another appointment and I was to stand in for him. Attendees included Sir Martin, Maurice Levy and Carlos Gohsn.

Sir Martin knew them all, presented and debated with passion, had time to take a swipe at me because of who I worked for, clashed furiously with Maurice and then pretty much dictated the agenda of the follow-up meeting and suggested tasks and further research. And whilst not all those CEOs agreed with what he said, no-one left thinking that their communications or PR or brand folk should not be hard-wired into their subsequent planning on the subject.

He has done this at Davos and at conferences and wherever business meets for years. No-one has covered more ground and ‘yes’ he was selling WPP above all, and ‘yes’ he talks about nuanced brand issues and creative like an accountant, and ‘yes’ he could be needlessly aggressive to competitors, but despite all of this he made the case for our industry and for the role of agencies more effectively to business at the most senior levels than anyone else.

So whilst the ‘creative purists’ may cheer his departure, unless the agency industry can find another champion and advocate as global, tireless, wiley, well connected and respected as Sir Martin, they may discover their ideas are taken less seriously in the future.

(*) The Marmite Love/Hate campaign was by DDB, part of Omnicom, so Sir Martin will NOT approve of this analogy.

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