Sir Martin The Big

CANNES, June 21 – Note, please, the dateline. The Cannes Lions Festival of Glorious Excess is an annual rite of solstice. So how amusing to be sitting here on this particular Friday with Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP and the man himself nicknamed “June 21st" -- because he is the shortest knight.

Pretty great joke, but it's mean and gratuitous, and I can no longer glibly tar Sorrell with such a shallow and disparaging diminutive. 

First of all, to see the man in action is to understand why he is a towering figure in the industry. Speaking to a Berlin School's Cannes Creative Leaders Program, he delivered a virtuosic performance of depth and scope. Sorrell speaks extemporaneously and with absolute command about the Mideast, Tayyip Erdogan, Brazilian infrastructure, Edward Snowden and the NSA, the trading dynasties of Saudi Arabia and the brand-by-brand market rankings of various prosaic categories in disparate countries of the world (not to mention every minute aspect of WPP's financials, portfolio and personnel.) All the while he is quantifying his remarks with percentages that he feels no need to qualify with “about,” because he knows them precisely.



Positively Clintonian is His Sir-ness.

At the same time, he is disarmingly candid about his inability to know the unknowable. Yes, he wants to ramp up the share of business in the BRIC countries and developing regions to 40% of the company's income. Yes, he wants to achieve “horizontality,” allowing clients to cherrypick from assets across WPP. Yes, he wants to build out the data business still further. Yes, he wants to move the digital pie wedge from 34% to 40%.

But as to what digital will look like, he offers…well, what’s the British word for “shrug?”

“We are wrestling with the technology.”

Sorrell speaks with some combination of pity and distaste for WPPers “sitting in some creative department slaving away on ads that people aren't paying for and harboring doubts about their value.” He quotes a magazine article hypothesizing that “tv might be in the same position as newspapers were in a few years ago.”

Says the man who controls $70 billion in media spend: “There are changes going on.”

Now this is the place where I have to have a word with Sir Martin. I remind him, as I believe I put it, “of not only the stupidest thing he has ever said, but the stupidest thing anybody has ever said” back in 2007. His subject had been the idea of digital displacing traditional media:

"Slowly, the new media will cease to be thought of as new media; they will simply be additional channels of communication. And like all media that were once new media but are now just media, they'll earn a well-deserved place in the media repertoire… but will almost certainly displace none." 

Here I am obliged to remind him that certain parties (ahem) were predicting exactly such displacement in rather exquisite detail -- including but not limited to the gradual collapse of newspapers, magazines and television -- while he was busy comparing the Internet to cable or whatever. He wasn't with that analysis seeming the shortest knight; he was seeming the Pythonian Black Knight claiming no harm had been done to him.

Having thrown his words back at him, I watched a wry smile cross his face.

“You're trying to seize on facts to justify your hypothesis,” he said.

It got worse. Moments later he was accusing me of having no sense of irony, which is rather like telling a carpenter he cannot saw. But never mind. Sorrell was right. While he was busy building a phenomenal global business, I have been frantically riding a single hobby horse, like Paul Revere in a nursery, warning about invading zeroes and ones. But lo and behold, in 2013, with the likes of Aereo, Boxee and Netflix in fact disintermediating the TV industry and publishing circling the drain -- and with digital publishing tragically unprofitable -- the facts do justify my hypothesis. 

After all, only $3.5 billion of WPP's $15.6 billion revenues in 2012 were from -- strictly defined -- the advertising business. At a certain point, Sir Martin talks about the prospect for technology yielding higher CPMs and I interrupt. “Excuse me…hasn't that already been litigated, due to the law of supply and demand?”

And with that comes the second reason I'll be sparing with my stature jokes from this point forward. Picture the titan facing the monomaniac. Quoth the maven: “I wasn't smart enough to figure that out. You were smart enough to figure it out.”

Well, Sir, thank you for that. It is not nothing for the likes him to concede a large point to the likes of me. Short, we should always remember, is not the same as small. And we should also remember this: the man who was introduced today as “the leader of a $1 trillion industry” has -- grudgingly or not, at least by implication -- conceded the astronomical fact of longer nights ahead.


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  1. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, June 26, 2013 at 8:54 a.m.

    Bob, suppose he was right in 2007. History is on his side. National print didn't eliminate local print. Radio didn't dispose of print. And TV didn't wipe out radio, print, and movies. McLuhan said (and he was right) that new media at first take on the forms of the old media. Thus radio did vaudeville, movies did stage plays, TV took radio programs (so.etimes the scripts verbatim from radio), and digital at first looked like it trying to combine print, tv, and radio. Eventually a medium seems to find its essence: Ruby shooting Oswald, Limbaugh-Stern on the radio. Digital just appears to have a lot of essences and in a sense are a lot of different media through one piece of technology. Sir Martin-I only know as an energetic teppenfresser who once stepped on my foot on the Concord (first cabin of course, not the resort in Kiamesha Lake). He was most polite and uttered an apology, but with a look at my shoes that seemed to say: "HE must be using miles."

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