Life & Culture

Martin Sorrell: I’m 71 not out and my work is still fun

We talk Brexit, cricket, antisemitism and British steel with Martin Sorrell


At last, Sir Martin Sorrell and I are on safer ground. Well, I am on safer ground. I suspect that one of the world's most influential media moguls would love to continue talking about market performance, under-indexed Asian operations, the impact of long-term policies on the tertiary economy and the consequences of a low-growth world on shareholder returns.

But when he suddenly mentions the inexorable rise of his WPP business in India, I spot the opportunity for a change of bowling. Did he, I ask, watch the T20 cricket final in Kolkata, the day before our meeting, when the West Indies beat England in a thrilling denouement?

''A fantastic match, wonderful. The wrong result but what a game. Joe Root played some tremendous shots, not a slog shot there. Purists might not like it compared to Test cricket but it's immense fun.'' The enthusiasm in his voice has gone up several notches.

However, it is not the brutal beauty of the 20-over game that most enthuses him but the inner steel of the competitors. I suspect that sporting prowess is, for him, a metaphor for business success.

''That match showed what motivation can do. The West Indies wanted to win that game. This was settling a debt - they'd been written off by experts, including Shane Warne and Mark Nicholas. These guys were really upset; they didn't even have uniforms from their own cricketing authorities and were going to cancel their attendance at the finals. This shows the power of motivation. They wanted to win.''

This is the Sorrell way of doing things. Wanting to win, refusing to be written off, being motivated to outperform the competitor in every aspect, to not dare contemplate the long, defeatist trudge back to the pavilion. To hate to lose.

I have first-hand experience of this, having foolishly tried to engage Sir Martin in polite conversation a couple of years ago at a charity cricket match. He had hit a six - I think off Shane Warne, though he insists I must be mistaken - and then been given out, before plonking himself down in the seat next to mine. ''That was a good knock,'' I said at the time. I'm not sure I'll ever forget the subsequent look of thunder: how could it have been good? He was out! I recount this story to ask if not winning at work elicits the same reaction.

He turns to his loyal communications adviser, sat at the end of the boardroom table: ''What am I like if I don't win?''

Unhesitatingly, the aide replies: ''Completely reasonable.''

''There you are, you have your answer. Completely reasonable and equitable,'' and a broad grin lights up his well-tanned face, as he scrapes a white china bowl for the remainders of his lunch-time tomato soup.

An audience with Sir Martin is not easy. It's not that he is monotone and evasive - quite the opposite. He is excellent company, charming, full of invaluable insight and constantly going off on unexpected tangents, his mind occasionally pulled in different directions perhaps as a result of constant glances to incoming emails and texts on his phone.

It is just that he would rather talk about business and I'd rather talk about him. Sport is my chance to delve a little deeper. As is food.

The soup bowl cleaned, I ask about the formative years he spent with his close friend, historian Simon Schama, when they were excused from dinner at Cambridge University to go and cook kosher meals in their rooms.

''Simon did most of the cooking actually. I seem to recall it was mostly risotto. Simon made a fabulous mushroom risotto. Or at least it seemed fabulous at the time. We became great friends when we met at Haberdashers Aske's school in history class. Simon clearly had the talent in that subject - he was always the great analyser of things while I tended to be the copier.

''But, at Cambridge, we most looked forward to the kosher roast chicken that my mother used to send up from North London. Our family lived in Mill Hill at the time. We'd moved up in the world from Henley's Corner where I first lived in a block of flats called Queensborough Court. They left the socialist hotbed of Hampstead Garden Suburb for the more right-wing enclave of North London.

''Anyway, on a Friday, she'd send up on the train a cooked kosher chicken wrapped in silver foil. I'd go to the station to collect it and it was still warm. Absolutely extraordinary. And then Simon and I would share it together.'' An only child - Sir Martin's older brother died at birth - perhaps it was natural that he would be spoilt occasionally.

Did such behaviour make him feel like an outsider, up at Christ's College in the heart of the establishment?

''No, not at all. In fact there were quite a few boys from Habs at Cambridge. We weren't outsiders, that would be too simplistic. I was just grateful to have got there, it was a wonderful place to study. My big regret is that I didn't use those three years as effectively as I used the two years of business school. I tried hard to get a 2:1 in each year and failed miserably by getting a 2:2. I just wasted too much time. My kids today are much better at managing time than we were (he has two sons in their late 40s, one in his late 30s and seven grandchildren). Perhaps that's to do with electronics, everything is instant. We used to waste a lot of time trying to find books in various shops. I'm not prone to wasting time like that any more.''

Indeed not. In the 30 or so years since he began turning Wire and Plastic Products into a global powerhouse of some of the biggest names in media, communications and marketing, Sir Martin has been involved in a relentless drive for more. More deals, more influence, more profits and more publicity. That drive and success was rewarded with a knighthood in 2000.

Little wonder that a conglomerate boasting the industry-leading talents of J Walter Thompson, Kantar, Ogilvy & Mather, Burson-Marsteller, Finsbury and more has a stock-market valuation of more than £20 billion. Which perhaps goes some way to justifying his most recent annual salary of £1.15m, shares worth more than £62m and an additional, substantial cash bonus.

As the world's largest advertising agency, WPP has seen its shares more than double in the past five years. But Sir Martin was not an overnight success; in fact it was not until his early 40s, after stints at Mark McCormack's IMG and then Saatchi & Saatchi, that he truly began to cement his reputation as one of the canniest and most forward-thinking media operators.

''You're never too old to reinvent yourself. Your 40th is a watershed year, the midpoint of life when you look back at what you've achieved and try to predict what you can do in the next 20 years to build on that experience and reputation.

''Except here I am at 71 with no thoughts about retirement. Age is meaningless, it's all about how you feel. I couldn't imagine not coming in to work on a regular basis and having a portfolio job instead, because I would just mentally decay. Retirement turns a lot of people into vegetables.

''My dad always said to me: 'Do something you enjoy.' He was right. When I get up in the morning it's very rarely that I would be gefrunselt about things. It's not work to me. Well, it is work but it's fun. There's no such things as stress - it's just a sign that you're not enjoying yourself or what you're doing.''

Perhaps now is not the right moment to bring up the subject of marital-induced stress - Sir Martin's 35-year marriage to first wife Sandra ended rather publicly in 2005, culminating in a £30m divorce settlement and prompting him to sell some of his WPP stock.

Since 2008, he has been married to Cristiana Falcone, an Italian who worked for the World Economic Forum - where they met. Their wedding ceremony included blessings from a rabbi and her family priest.

However, no one has ever been as close to him as his father Jack, a successful businessman in his own right, Sir Martin's most influential mentor and a man he usually spoke to three times a day. A first-generation immigrant whose parents came from what is now Ukraine, he died in 1989 and since then there have not been many to whom the media mogul has turned for advice.

''No, there hasn't been anyone so close. There are various people I ask for advice, not on an intimate basis as I would do with my wife. But it's very important to have somebody who does not have an agenda but rather your interests at heart, who can give you dispassionate advice.

''My dad never had the benefits that he gave me. He left school at 13, he was in a six-strong family and had to earn money, even though he had a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, could recite Shakespeare and the Talmud inside out. He was a real inspiration to me.''

Cricket aside, the other thing at the forefront of his mind today is the ongoing debate about Britain's role in the EU. Sir Martin is adamant that we need to remain inside ''the club'' and that the Brexit campaigners are risking Britain's future financial prosperity by frightening the electorate into leaving. More worrying, though - especially for a descendant of immigrants who arrived here without a penny - are the unpleasant emotional arguments about the need to stem the influx of foreigners.

''If we come out of Europe, companies like WPP will be looking at the Continent in a different way. We won't move our operations away from Britain but we will be looking to employ more people in France, Germany, Italy and Spain because here in the UK, with less access to Brussels, we will have less access to those markets.

''I want people's Pavlovian reaction - whether they're a client or a new business or people looking to work within our company - to be: 'OK then, we'll come to WPP.' I wish it was that way but it isn't, we've got to come to Europe.

''Our polling seems to indicate that the in-out is split 35-35 per cent which is down from the initial 38-38 per cent. Which means more people don't know which side they're on because they don't have enough information. I think, as we get closer to the referendum date, the fear factor of change and of the unknown black hole will come to the fore.

''The key emotions, though, centre on immigration. I recently held a private dinner with Nigel Lamont after he said he wanted to come out of Europe. And I asked him - are you saying immigration has been a negative for the British economy? He said, yes, and yet all the facts say the opposite. That is the emotional bit, the sort of thing that the likes of Nigel Farage are seeking to exploit.

''In the end, this debate will come down to how people feel about immigration. People like Lord Lamont say the problem is the influx of unskilled labour. Well, my grandparents were unskilled labour. Some people might feel it would have been better if they hadn't been admitted but that's what we're getting down to.

''The pogroms in Russia and the concentration camps in Eastern Europe and Germany, they're no different in scale to what's happening in Syria, in terms of numbers of people. It's not as if we haven't been here before. Was the absorption of people coming into the economies of Western Europe a bad thing before? I would say not.''

And alongside these immigration fears is a growing antisemitism - ''which is much more subtle than it was in my time,'' he adds.

''I can remember being on the bus to play cricket at Brentwood School. I couldn't play the previous week because it was Simchat Torah or something, and there was a fellow pupil whose name I still recall who said to me: 'You know what, Sorrell, you're different. You're Jewish.'

''It's not always as blatant as that now, it's less obvious. I mean, how many times do people say 'You don't look Jewish' and why in newspaper articles are people described as 'Jewish from North West London', you don't see people described as Catholics from South West London.''

There is even an episode of alleged antisemitism in his own company at the moment. The CEO of J Walter Thompson in America, Gustavo Martinez, has left his job after a colleague alleged that he made racist and sexist comments that made it ''impossible for her to do her job''. These included references to, it is claimed, ''f***ing Jews'' and that an upmarket part of New York state, Westchester, had ''too many Jews''. Martinez has hired his own lawyers to fight the allegations and it is believed he has the backing of other JWT executives.

Sir Martin's response to my probing is typically robust (one might even say it has the aggressive force of a West Indian batsman looking to hit a six over extra cover) and it even allows him to slip in a sly dig at an old foe. Maurice Levy, CEO of French media conglomerate Publicis, and Sir Martin had a dramatic falling out when the two were embroiled in battles to buy the same companies. Sir Martin won and the feud remains.

''Well, we have two investigations going on to find out what was and wasn't said but the problem is that guy has been tried and judged in the court of public opinion, and that's wrong. I have no complaints, we deal with the media all the time and we're aware of their strengths and weaknesses. But people make statements and journalists don't examine the statements - they don't go back even six months to test the veracity of what that individual has said. That is appalling. The trouble is that the era of in-depth journalism and investigative reporting is over. It's all so superficial. Perhaps this Panama Papers episode (the story of high-profile tax evasion is breaking as we speak) is proof it still exists in some form.

But still, the journalists want to be fed something, they've got no time and the editor wants them to get the scoop. And if you don't get that scoop, you might get punished.

''The horrific thing about this episode is that no journalist has examined in depth the reputation of Publicis, especially when Levy made comments about the JWT story. You only have to go back six months to find that 100 women filed a suit against Publicis, which was settled out of court. Not one journalist mentioned that. It's lazy journalism and terrible.''

Just as lazy in Sir Martin's eyes are businesses and politicians whose judgment is clouded by short-term gains. Strength, profitability and positive societal change are derived from long-term thinking, the kind of attitude woefully absent from the recent calamitous events in the British steel industry. I mention a powerful commentary written a few days previously by Alex Brummer, in which he castigates politicians for their ''fast buck'' hedge-fund mentality. Though he didn't read the piece, Sir Martin agrees with Brummer's sentiment.

''We live in a low-growth world so it's understandable that businesses focus on short-term gains and quarterlies but that doesn't make it the best system. CEOs are typically in their position for six or seven years so it's understandable that they, like politicians, focus on the period they're in power for. And that discourages people from thinking long-term. There is so much uncertainty in the world and that heightens risk which, in turn, makes people much more conservative. And whether you're in business or politics, you don't want bad things to happen on your watch.

''The situation with the steel industry in Wales is a good - or, more accurately, bad - example of lack of planning. It's half a policy. If you're going to engage with China, that's half a policy because the result is that it will stimulate the growth of service and tertiary economy. But the other half is just as crucial. The manufacturing base is going to have to change - so instead of low-cost commodity steel it's going to be highly specialised engineering companies that produce premium products. What we've seen so far is a short-term reactive policy, not a proactive one.''

Having put the worlds of politics, manufacturing, media, immigration and home-delivered chicken products to rights, our time is up. But not his. I am left feeling that, like an old-fashioned opening Test batsman - Gordon Greenidge perhaps - Sir Martin's unstinting energy and love of the job mean he is determined to stay at the crease, watching the short-term sloggers trudge back to the pavilion having not heeded his sage advice and unstinting attention to detail.

Every detail. A few minutes after I leave his office an email arrives to explain his apparent bad mood at the charity cricket match. ''Now I know why! It wasn't Warne. Wasim Akram broke my toe -and no, I didn't hit a six, maybe a four.''

Modest, too. Who would have thought it.

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