What keeps Sir Martin Sorrell up at night

Date posted: July 3, 2017

​What keeps Sir Martin Sorrell up at night (other than his baby)

Sir Martin Sorrell is the CEO of WPP (which you probably know).  He’s also 72 and has an 8 month-old baby (which you may not have known).  Quite how he is able to combine all that together is slightly beyond me (I am 44, have a 5 and 7 year old, and am rarely coherent without many coffees).

I was fortunate enough to participate in an event put on by our partners Kantar Media a couple of weeks ago called the World Audiences Summit (if you’re interested in what the future of TV measurement looks like, I’ll be posting about it soon).  As part of that event, Sir Martin provided some fascinating insights into how he sees the world.  Some highlights are below:

The danger of short-term thinking

When asked what kept him up at night (other than his baby), Sir Martin said it was “short-term thinking”.  CMO tenure is short which means everything is too short-term.  “There is a rigid focus on the short term […] I think that’s wrong”.  He has obviously been reading my other blog post.

He pointed out two broad categories of companies that more consistently took a long-term view, and were more successful as a result.  The first was family-controlled ‘legacy’ companies such as News International (the Murdochs) and Comcast (the Roberts).  The second was tech companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google.  He pointed out that, for the first time ever, the top 5 companies in terms of brand reputation (as measured by Millward Brown) as well as market capitalization were all “the fearsome tech companies”.  Why?  “Because they invest in innovation and they invest in brand”.

Sir Martin is one of a growing clamour of voices warning of the dangers of short-term thinking in marketing.  Let’s see if Canadian marketers take heed.

Legacy businesses must experiment

When faced with the threats and challenges around them, Sir Martin was insistent that legacy businesses had to experiment.  Those companies who don’t experiment “will be holed below the water line”.

When it comes to the future of TV companies specifically, Sir Martin said “I’m bullish on the future of screens, but if you define screens narrowly […] you’ll be in trouble”.  In short, “the TV companies who will survive are the ones that will adapt their business models fast enough”.

On that note, it’s great to be playing a role in the steps that Corus, Bell Media and Rogers Media and others are taking towards doing just that in Canada.

Why adapting is difficult

Interestingly, when asked why it was difficult for legacy companies to experiment and adapt to disruption, the main reasons Sir Martin gave were essentially to do with culture.  The first was leadership: “most companies are run by older people, and usually older men.  That is part of the problem”.  The second was due to a lack of inter-industry co-operation: “when they come under pressure, the legacy companies don’t work together even though that would massively help”.

The company that worries most companies the most

Last year, the companies that most worried him and his clients were Google and Facebook.  This year, they’ve both been supplanted by a new threat: Amazon.

“Amazon is the elephant in the room.  It keeps my clients up at night, and makes them frightened, across all industries”.

How he feels about his clients

Sir Martin was very diplomatic when asked to name his favorite clients.  Refraining from naming names, he instead talked of two “buckets” of clients: 1) constructive clients (“here’s what we need to do, work with us to get there”) and 2) destructive clients (“if you don’t do what we want you to do, you’ll basically be fired”).  He obviously preferred working with the former!

He added that the pressure on his the employees (over 200k people in 13 countries) is really intense: “I can’t ever remember it being this intense before”.

Ultimately, he said that clients “want things that are simplified and integrated”.  For what it’s worth, here at NLogic, we couldn’t agree more!


COVER IMAGE: WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell.REUTERS/Brendan McDermid​

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