Yep, it was WPP CEO Martin Sorrell versus New Yorker journalist and author Ken Auletta in a one-on-one session Monday at Advertising Week New York.
No doubt they’re both heavyweights in their industries, advertising and journalism, respectively. But their onstage discussion was hardly the 14-round slugfest that the event’s CEO Matt Scheckner declared it would be right before the two participants launched into their session.
Yeah, he actually likened it to the “Thrilla in Manila” -- the legendary 1975 rubber match bout between boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.
Not even close, and probably was never meant to be. The words probably flew out Scheckner’s mouth without him even thinking. But hey, he’s a promoter — and darn good at it.
Anyway, both participants seemed to have fun.
They started off with a coin flip (Sorrell did the flipping) to see who got to ask the first question, and Auletta won. He started off with what he said was going to be a “nasty” question. It had to do with declining ad spend by clients that led to a rough third quarter for WPP.
Basically, Auletta asked whether clients were spending less because consumers can’t stand and don’t pay much attention to most ads as they consider them an “interruption” to whatever it is they’d otherwise be doing.
Sorrell, who has the figurative fancy footwork of Ali in his prime, danced around the question with his usual deft, talking about prospect markets, activist investor pressures and their focus on zero-based budgeting. But he acknowledged that “it’s a difficult thing to analyze” and “I wish I knew the answer.”
Auletta followed up by asking the WPP chief whether the problem was cyclical or structural. Having already acknowledged that the issue is difficult to analyze, Sorrell responded with a question, wondering why Auletta had chosen to spend the last two years-plus writing a book (due out next spring) about the advertising business.
Sorrell described it as a “tiddley-pop” (sounded like, which means small) industry compared to the big media businesses Auletta has previously written about, like Google and News Corp. Sorrell finally answered that it was probably a “little bit of both.”
Sorrell also stressed (my notes don’t show in response to which question; it might have been several) that the Googles and Facebooks of the world must be seen as media companies and not tech firms. The point being, he emphasized, “they have to take responsibility for what issues through their pipes.”
He made specific reference to the recent news that on Facebook, it was possible to target people who hate Jews with ads.
Asked what the industry would look like in 10 years, Sorrell repliedL “I won’t be around then.” There was a bit of a back and forth about whether he meant job-wise or I’ll-be-dead-wise. I’m pretty sure he meant job-wise. He is 72 after all, has a lot of dough and a young family. Why not chill and enjoy it?
Then again, those A-type Brit personalities like to hang in there career-wise. I mean, Churchill was running the country as prime minister into his eighties. Stay tuned!