Commentary

Sorrell's Departure No Longer Shrouded In Mystery

It took two months, but a lot more light is shining on the details that led to Martin Sorrell's abrupt departure from the CEO perch at WPP. Some of those details are sordid, but not that uncommon in the rarefied world of high-flying egomaniacal business leaders.

In the last four days, reports have been published -- most notably by The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times -- that Sorrell was investigated by the WPP board of directors for possibly using company funds to pay for a prostitute and also for routinely verbally abusing underlings in a way that might drive some people to drink or file for divorce.

Apparently, Sorrell also had a tendency, per the FT, to co-mingle personal and work-related expenses. For someone who has made double-digit millions in annual compensation probably for decades, such behavior never fails to boggle the mind. Yet there is a laundry list of CEOs — successful and utterly self-entitled — who have engaged in the behavior.  Why does Miles Nadal's name jump to mind?

Behavior it seems that went largely unchallenged until the arrival of Roberto Quarta a couple of years ago as the company's chairman.

Up to that point, the company's growth trajectory made the former WPP boss impervious to challenge. Effectively, Sorrell ruled like a king and the board fell in line. The FT quoted a former employee as saying, “This is the only [major] company I have worked for that felt like the board answered to the CEO, rather than the other way around.”

Well, it looks like Sorrell met his match in Quarta. And if you don't think the company had something to do with the well-timed stories placed in the above-referenced august publications, non-disclosure agreements aside, think again.  

 But also, Sorrell seemingly had a brilliant growth strategy, year in and year out, which covers a lot of sins. That came screeching to a halt in 2017. I hate to be cynical — ok, not really—but if WPP's stock climbed by a third last year instead of falling by a third, Sorrell most likely would still be running the company.

Without that consistent growth, the emperor was exposed.

WPP's annual meeting tomorrow should be a lot a fun. Some advisors have advocated for a boardroom coup that would depose Quarta.

The odds of that happening after recent revelations: slim to none.

 

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