Advertising legend David Ogilvy didn't mince words, so when Martin Sorrell's WPP, a London-based former manufacturer of wire baskets, launched a hostile takeover of Ogilvy & Mather in 1989, Ogilvy denounced CEO Sorrell as an "odious little jerk." In the 18 years since then, the diminutive Sorrell, 60, has not got any taller, but his stature has grown. Today he is Sir Martin, and WPP owns iconic advertising names like Ogilvy, Young & Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson and Grey. With Sorrell leading the way, a wave of consolidation has swept advertising, and now WPP and four other giants together hog 60% of all U.S. advertising dollars.
Earlier than most, Sorrell understood that advertising was being upended. It faced a rebellion from clients who refused to keep paying ad agencies a flat 15% commission and moved to a fee-based model to cut costs. It was menaced by technology that gave consumers more choices and weapons that avoided ads. Sorrell sought new answers. He began to acquire lucrative fee-based service businesses such as public relations, event marketing, and direct-mail and research firms, and branded WPP a marketing, not an advertising, company. He began to move east, adding companies and clients in Asia as well as Europe, the Middle East and South America and creating a full-service, global-marketing company to serve worldwide clients. Today WPP derives more than half its income from marketing rather than advertising.
Although Ogilvy later came to admire Sorrell, the jury is out as to whether giant companies like WPP can inspire creative people and convince Wall Street that size and synergy mesh. But Sorrell stands tall because he has been able to think outside the box. He understands the new truth of advertising and marketing: spoiled by so many choices, jaded by ad clutter and empowered by technology to skip the ads, the fickle consumer is in the driver's seat.
Auletta, author of 10 books, writes "Annals of Communication" for the New Yorker