Opinion

After Sorrell’s departure, adland truly is no country for old men

Martin Sorrell’s departure reflects the end of an era for WPP - and the advertising industry as a whole - says Vamp’s Ben McGrath.

Advertising lost one of the original members of the old guard this weekend as Sir Martin Sorrell resigned from WPP. The 73-year-old was the company’s founder and Britain’s highest paid executive.

Regardless of the recent allegations of misconduct, Sorrell built WPP into an empire. He turned a two man business into an advertising powerhouse employing 200,000 staff in 112 countries and after 33 years, he was the longest-serving CEO on the FTSE 100 blue chip index.

Some will say ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ and it’s true.

For Sorrell’s business model, the model that undoubtedly made WPP the leading name and him a very rich man, was showing signs of tiring. In the past year shares fell by almost one-third.

Slashed budgets from big clients like Procter & Gamble were blamed for WPP’s poorly performing ad agencies, but as experts speculate over the company’s future, it’s becoming all too clear that the traditional advertising landscape has changed dramatically.

WPP’s success was in a different time. A time of aggressive buying, big campaigns and expensive adverts. Now, ad blockers have propelled native advertising to the fore. Smart phones have made mobile-first advertising essential and the explosion of social media has created selling phenomenons out of influencers.

Sorrell famously labelled tech giants like Facebook and Google ‘frenemies’ of the advertising world, suspicious of their influence in the sector. Last year he recognised, ‘Amazon is becoming a force in advertising’, but even with these observations, the question remains as to whether a huge conglomerate like WPP can adapt to the agility demanded by modern advertising.

For an agency to effectively serve the needs of brands in this new world, they must stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing technology and consumer behaviours. They must collaborate, not fear, these tech companies.

Consumers are more empowered, demanding and overwhelmed by choice than ever before. We know that trust in media and big brands is on the decline and people no longer wish to be advertised to. Those ignoring the ‘skip ad’ cue on Netflix and Youtube are a rare breed. Now, big marketing messages are translated into the voice of influencers, giving consumers the sense that they have invited the interaction into their lives, rather than being confronted by it.

The shift to digital advertising presents more frequent, smaller scale opportunities that suit tighter brand budgets. It also leaves agencies less dependant on loyal, long term client partnerships for steady revenue. Rather than a big budget TV ad, months in the making, brands are opting for reactive and highly-targeted content marketing.

As the recently retired global chief digital officer of GroupM, Rob Norman noted: “It’s pretty clear that in the last five to seven years, the playing field has been tilting in one direction — not just for WPP, but media owners and advertisers in many ways.”

While it’s not yet known who will fill the big shoes of the WPP leader, this new world will undoubtably create a new generation of agency leader. Digital natives who grew up online so have no need to learn the disciplines of social media. These will be the leaders that revolutionise and modernise the traditional agency model, or decide it’s no longer fit for purpose.


Ben McGrath is the co-founder of influencer marketing platform Vamp.

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