The Empire Expectantly Waits…

17 Apr,2018


By Prabhakar Mundkur


They are enormously big shoes to fill.  As WPP looks for a successor, one can’t help but speculate on what it will take to step into Sir Martin’s shoes.


WPP is much larger than we can imagine.  It has 405 ad agencies, PR firms, marketing and media buying agencies that include JWT, Ogilvy, Y&R, Grey, GroupM and Kantar.  With over 200,000 people in the group, it is no mean feat to manage this behemoth.


WPP is not at its best at this juncture in its history.  Its stock has seen a 35% decline from its high in 2015. It also seems to be declining faster than the other communication groups.



The search for a successor has been on for the last eight years ever since WPP shareholders put pressure on knowing what would happen to WPP post-Sorrell.  One can only imagine that no candidate came close to be considered as a replacement for Sorrell.


So what do we expect the ideal candidate would be?


Commentator on the Global Economy

Sir Martin has been a commentator on the global economy.  He constantly appeared in the press with his views on it.  He has also had a great perspective of the various regions.  He could talk as competently about Asia and he could about Europe or the US.  He related global events to the world economy.  For example, he had an opinion on how Donald Trump or Brexit would affect the world economy. At Davos this year he held his own on globalisation, capitalism and the ‘America first’ policy.He also had a comment on India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the same forum when he said “India has been extremely successful, he’s been extremely successful in changing Brand India, and in changing the actual performance of the Indian economy, but the question is, how does he continue to maintain the progress that he’s initiated? He has elections coming up in 2019, so hopefully, he will get another term, and take Brand India to another level.”


Believer in Ideas

Sir Martin was the quintessential entrepreneur. He knew how to start something small and make it big and this is exactly what he did with WPP since he first founded it in 1985.  He was a deal-maker. And master negotiator.  For people who thought he was just a bean counter, in an interview with the Daily Mail in 2014 he is known to have said that ideas are more important than making money.  At other times, he spoke of ambidexterity and that great leaders needed judgment, creativity, intuition and imagination.


And Sir Martin did have ideas.  Almost all of his acquisitions were based on creating value for this company. His latest bug was “horizontality”. More than aware that the companies within the group were functioning in individual silos, Sir Martin was championing his idea of “horizontality” which he defined as  ‘connected know-how’: a way of working that unites people with diverse skills to deliver seamless solutions for clients”.



Sir Martin was a master networker.  This is what made him successful with WPP clients whom he met regularly all over the world.  Sir Martin was also charming when he wanted to be, and a great conversationalist.  Because he was interested in a wide variety of subjects he could quickly connect with most people.  I remember once introducing him to the Chairman of a company and my five-second brief to him was that the client was ex-MIT and an entrepreneur.  A few minutes later Sir Martin was engaging with the client and speaking about MIT and how he had just visited Boston a few months ago.


Quick and Decisive

Sir Martin was famously known for responding to his email on the fly.  Considering the size of WPP, everyone was assured of an immediate response to a query or approval from Sir Martin. Some people would joke about it and say that he perhaps had some people who could respond to the  routine emails and text messages.  He once said  “an imperfect decision on Monday is better than the 100% perfect decision on Friday”.


The Will to Win

Sir Martin liked winning and he made it a habit and always gave it all he had.  In a LinkedIn article in 2015 called “ 7 qualities What Will Get You Hired “  he said “ I often plagiarise Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, who famously said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death; I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” That’s how I feel about WPP.  He reiterated this feeling in his farewell note to WPP employees a few days ago he said “As a Founder, I can say that WPP is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that.”


Industry observers are busy making predictions about whether the successor will be internal or external. Management theory tells us that if someone is 60% ready for the job, promote him and he will grow on the job.


The problem here is that one can’t see anyone internal or external who is 60% ready to take on Sir Martin’s job. Or at least they don’t seem to be on the horizon as yet.



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