The Latest Turbulence At WPP

Well, Tuesday ended with a bang on the Adland news front, thanks to a bombshell dropped by the Wall Street Journal about WPP chief Martin Sorrell.

According to the paper Sorrell is being investigated by the company for possible misuse of company assets and alleged personal misconduct.

A short time later the company issued a statement:

“The Board of WPP has appointed independent counsel to conduct an investigation in response to an allegation of personal misconduct against Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive Officer of WPP. The investigation is ongoing. The allegations do not involve amounts which are material to WPP.”

So something is up and more details will inevitably dribble out in the coming days. Maybe hours—hard to tell with a story like this.

The details are few at this point, which has industry tongues wagging a mile a minute as you would imagine.



And while no one should draw any conclusions at this point, it’s hard not to speculate.  Let’s face it, over the past six months dozens of wildly successful men have been accused of personal misconduct. In most cases it’s turned out to be sexual misconduct against women in far less powerful roles.

That would be a shame if it turns out to be true in Sorrell’s case and a sad and ignominious end to an illustrious career. Over thirty plus years the man did turn a shopping basket maker (WPP’s original business) into the world’s largest advertising holding company. 

Some of those aforementioned wagging tongues wonder about the JWT sex harassment case still ongoing more than two years after it first hit U.S. District Court in New York. Of course it only took a week for the alleged harasser, Gustavo Martinez, to be ousted from his job as global CEO of the company.  “He had to go,” Sorrell stated around that time.

But as a tongue wagger or two noted, Martinez wasn’t booted out of WPP—he’s been doing work for the company in Europe.  So if Martinez “had to go” from JWT, why let him stay at the company at all? The waggers do wonder.

Now that the news is out about Sorrell and WPP has confirmed an investigation, my guess is the company wants to wrap this up really quickly and be done with it one way or the other. The last thing it needs is second-guessing about the future tenure of its CEO.

The company has enough troubles, with slow growth and clients putting the squeeze on fees. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the ongoing talks with Ford, WPP’s biggest client, about the firms’ future relationship.

But if the investigation finds that Sorrell did engage in personal misconduct, that too presents a set of problems. People misbehave and still keep their jobs.

But if it’s deemed serious enough to warrant termination, then who would run the company? Maybe company chairman Roberto Quarta is making more progress on the succession plan front than he’s letting on publicly, who knows.

For now, many more questions than answers with this latest drama at WPP.

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