My Media Life – Sir Martin Sorrell

March 7, 2022

Sir Martin Sorrell in conversation with Arif Durrani, Media Consultant

Welcome to my media life an exciting new feature from the World Media Group. We’ll be interviewing some successful and interesting media and marketing leaders from around the world to get an insight into their career and some of their personal motivations. Stay tuned for some top tips and interesting insights!

Who better to start this global initiative with than arguably the most globally connected, internationally successful marketing leader of our time? The founder of S4 Capital and WPP, of course, none other than Sir Martin Sorrell.

So, what does the media industry mean to you?

What it means to me is ‘fun’ and ‘interest’. My dad said to me, “Find an industry that you enjoy and then find a company inside that industry that you enjoy. Build a reputation in it, and then, if you fancy, around the age of 40, go off and do something on your own.” My dad didn’t do that, because he worked in the same company for the whole of his working life. So, I would say, the answer to that question, is that the media industry is really interesting.

When I went into it with, I went [to Saatchi] in part, because I liked the industry and it reminded me of the sports and entertainment industry. The only barrier, particularly in the UK, was not about connection or who you knew, but the strength of your latest idea. You just needed a phone and somewhere quiet you could take or make a phone call. So that’s the reason – fun and interest; demanding, enticing, fast-moving and all those things. And virtually zero barriers to entry.

What’s the one piece of advice that has helped during your career?

Although it’s counter intuitive to what people get told now, it was sticking with the company and building. It’s not what people do now – people flip from flower to flower. Maybe corporate lives are so short now, it’s the right thing to do. But I think the best advice was to focus on something that you find enjoyable.

Mark McCormack, the founder and chairman of IMG, was a scratch golfer and he took his hobby into work. He met professional golfer Arnold Palmer at Wake Forest university and Arnold needed somebody to manage his contracts, so he decided to do that. The boundary between work and play was almost non-existent. I’ve been fortunate enough not to regard there as being much of a barrier between the two.

If you were starting out today, where would you like to begin?

I think my horizons would be different. The UK is still a really important economy, but if you look at things globally, you have to focus on countries like the US, China and India, so my gaze would probably be different. If I was starting out, I’d probably go to the US. North and South America are full of tremendous opportunities, particularly South America. I’d also be seduced by what’s happened in Asia Pacific, despite the difficulties currently of going to parts of Asia Pacific or China. But China and India are critically important now and will be in the future.

Like most British people, I’m appalling with languages. If I were starting again, I would focus very much on code and technology and engineering, and also on languages, particularly Chinese, in addition to English, and maybe Spanish.

I was fortunate – I was partly educated (or miseducated as my mother used to say) in America, so I got more of an international view, if not a global view. (In the 1960s although the US talked about global business, Proctor at that time was a big multinational with 10 percent of its revenues coming from outside the US. Global business had not really mushroomed like it did when the economist Ted Levitt got to grips with it in the 1980s with his globalisation pieces.)

So that’s what I think I would do differently. I would certainly still do the education I did. I was lucky enough to get into a great university in the UK, and one in America, and to do it immediately. I didn’t do work experience, which maybe was a mistake – maybe the best thing would have been to have had two years of work experience in between the first degree and post-graduate. But apart from that one qualification, I think, that’s what I’d do [today].

What’s your favourite thing about your current job?

I think it’s the growth of S4. If I think back, Saatchi was about globalisation, WPP was about the continuation of globalisation and the beginnings of technology. The great thing about S4 is that we continue to grow – I think that’s the most exciting thing about it. I’m not looking at my boots – I’m looking at the sky.

I think the clients we work with and the fact that 50 percent of our business is technology or technology orientated is a spectacular advantage. And I don’t want to lose that advantage, so we will continue to maintain that technological focus. We’re not making technology, but we’re deploying it for our clients in the most effective way to grow their top line. The biggest issue our clients face is top line growth and we’re in the business of stimulating top line growth – not just theirs, but our own too. Your outlook on life is very different if you’re growing at 46 percent than if you’re growing at two or three percent.

What do you think is your own secret talent?

That’s a difficult one. I guess a bull-headed persistence! I don’t know whether that’s a secret or not. But it’s persistence. It’s not brain surgery, certainly!

Where do you get your daily news from?

When I wake up in the morning, I switch on Squawk Box, whether I’m in London or New York. So, I’m gazing at [presenters] Ross Sorkin, Quick and Kernen in the US. At the moment, they’re talking about Charlie Munger [the American investor]. Here, it’s {presenters] Steve [Sedgwick] and Geoff [Cutmore] and everybody at Squawk Box in the UK. And then I tend to read the daily financials online – I don’t read them physically anymore – so The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times probably.

Breaking news I read throughout the day. There are some of the newsfeeds that I look at and I look at some of the general press – the New York Times or the Washington Post in the US or The Times or The Telegraph, The Guardian, or The Independent in the UK. I don’t read as many weeklies as I used to. I used to be religious about reading The Economist, the Investor’s Chronicle, Fortune, Business Week – all these I would go through page by page.

One of the things I find irritating about online is, I’m of an age where I worry about whether I’ve looked at every headline. So, through the day I pick up the newsfeeds, and then in the evening, before I go to bed, I watch Newsnight in the UK. In the US, it used to be Charlie Rose [former televisions journalist], but it it’s a bit more difficult to find the parallels. There are the news services there that I’ll drift off to sleep watching. But here, it’s nice to go to bed with [Newsnight’s] Emily Maitlis!

Which media brands are most important to you?

Well, the ones that I’ve said, and it would tend to be CNN when I’m traveling. Bloomberg, I use quite extensively as well. In South America – Argentina, in Uruguay and Colombia, where I’ve been just recently – access to CNBC is a little bit more limited, so I tend to look at CNN and Bloomberg more. It tends to be the financial brands that I focus on most. I listen to radio at bit. When I walk to work, I might listen to Bloomberg Radio or Times Radio (Goodness knows why they don’t take advertising, but maybe that’s to come). So, I listen to some news brands, but essentially it tends to be around the financial or daily newspapers.

I don’t suppose you have time for any podcasts in your life, do you?

I do, occasionally. Scott Galloway – I like that. I mean, it got a little bit too much: the rants [between] Kara Swisher [Tech Journalist] and Galloway [NYU professor] every week were good, but it doesn’t matter what they’re talking about, the tone is the same, so it gets a little bit tiresome after a while. But it’s quite entertaining, quite fun and good practice if you ever get into a conversation with Scott Galloway, which I recommend you don’t – he can be extremely difficult!

How do you switch off?

I don’t! There’s the Shankly quote, which I haven’t used for a number of years, something to the effect that football is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that. S4 is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that. So, the answer is, I don’t.

You’ve never seen the boundaries between so-called work and so-called lifestyle? Is it one and the same for you?

I think that’s fair. And I think that, probably, some people find that rather tiresome. But yes, I think that’s true. Remember what my dad said – you should do something that’s fun. It’s not work; it’s what you’re interested in. You asked me about why I’m interested in the industry: because it’s interesting, stimulating, it’s ever-changing, fast-moving. You wake up in the morning, you read what’s in your email feeds or texts, and things you didn’t think were going to happen when you went to bed the night before have happened.

The other thing about our industry is that it touches so many things. It touches society, culture, politics, every corner of the world, every nook and cranny. So, it’s relevant everywhere, every country, in every region, in every area of activity – it can be to B2C or B2B; it could be government. It’s just all embracing. So, it’s a great industry from that part.

The problem is there are still so many people that look back with rose-tinted spectacles to what happened many, many years ago, whether it be in the era of Mad Men, Don Draper or whoever. But it’s really interesting and it never fails to entertain and stimulate, and it’s not boring!

Finally, who or what inspires you?

My dad, obviously, and then a man called Sir Jules Thorn, who founded Thorn Electrical, [one of the UK’s largest electrical businesses] was a mentor. He came from Vienna between the two wars, an Austrian émigré, founded Thorn Electricals and built it up into a wonderful company – it’s no longer, unfortunately, but it was wonderful. And then, Arnold Weinstock, [the business man] who built the English GEC.

These are two people, my father knew because he was in the radio and electrical industry, so it was really through him that I met them. I had the opportunity of talking to Weinstock several times before he died, and about what he did and what he didn’t do. Also, Phil Reese, a lawyer at Davis and Gilbert, one of the leading advertising lawyers, who was not just a lawyer or a counsel, but was a good friend. After my father died, to some extent he replaced him.

If you look around now, I think [Elon] Musk and [Jeff] Bezos are extraordinary. Not just because of what they’ve done with Tesla and Amazon, but the fact they’ve done it in multiple fields. I can just about focus on S4 or WPP or Saatchi’s, but I can’t conceive of anybody being able to do Tesla and go to the moon or Mars, and do a Hyperloop and everything else, and Bezos not doing dissimilar. Richard Branson [Founder of the Virgin Group] is similar in a way, but the scale at which Bezos and Musk have operated at is extraordinary.

Somebody asked me yesterday how many companies in the FTSE 100 are in the hundred, most liquid companies, tradable companies in the world? And the answer is zero. Tesla – well over a trillion-market cap, one of six companies, I think, over a trillion – trades almost as much every day as major exchanges.

When one thinks about what these people have done, and they come in for some criticism in various aspects, but the ability of their minds to morph from one to the other. And Musk is even more incredible because he hasn’t retired as CEO of a Tesla. He carries on, yet he’s doing all the space exploration at the same time. Yuri Milner, the Russian internet investor, would be another one who has managed to stretch his brain to many, many other areas.

The other person I’d have loved to have met is Golda Meir [Israel’s first female Prime Minister] – I see that Helen Mirren is going to play her in a film. That’s probably the one person I’d have really liked to have met.

On that last question, you obviously know lots of the media entrepreneurs and giants of the day. Are there any one of those who stand out as being inspirational?

Rupert Murdoch [Chairman & CEO, News Corp], head and shoulders. You’d have to say Bob Iger [CEO, The Walt Disney Company 2005-2020] as well on the other side of that deal, but Rupert Murdoch’s timing is incredible. You’ve got to remember the roots of that company were in Australia, so it’s quite extraordinary. The fact that the Fox-Disney deal was incredible and look where it is now. He understood it was a global business and he was the first global media mogul.

I met somebody in Uruguay who ran one of the companies that Iger bought. I asked, what it was like? And she said the way that Disney managed creative talent was absolutely superb. If she needed to get anything done, if there were any blockages or whatever, all she did was, was called Bob and he would get it done. So, I would say for entrepreneur, Murdoch and then for manager / owner-manager, I would say Iger.

Thanks for your time, Sir Martin, and for launching My Media Life for us.

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