The importance of building a reputation

Take a bow — Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, talks about leadership and what makes us tick as professionals

By Julia Werdigier (Advertising)

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Published: Fri 21 Sep 2012, 6:39 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:04 PM

Q: What does leadership mean to you?

A: You could say being captain of a cricket team is a leadership position. But maybe more seriously, I was unusual in that I went straight to university after school and then straight to business school. I was 21 and the second youngest there, although a lot of people came straight from university because they avoided the draft for the Vietnam War. So the first time I was in a leadership position was when I came out of business school and my mother insisted I came back to the UK. I opened an office for Mark McCormack called International Financial Management UK Limited, a big mouthful.

Q: How was that? Did it come naturally to you?

A: I’d just done three years of how you manage General Motors, so it was a bit of a comedown. I thought that when I came out of Harvard Business School I would run GE, which is part of the problem with Harvard Business School. I don’t buy that these things come naturally. I do think if I had two candidates in front of me and one had an MBA from Harvard Business School — I am biased because I do think it’s a great school — and one who didn’t and they had equal talents, I’d take the one with the MBA. They tend to take on the people who are pretty good and also because I do think there are some basic skills that can be taught.

Q: In 1985, at the age of 40, you set up WPP as a marketing services company. How has your view of leadership changed over time?

A: Because I always said I want to run my own business or start my own firm, my dad used to say carve out a reputation for yourself so that people who are important, like clients, or banks, know of you and then if you want to do something on your own, you go and do it. So in a sense the two experiences, whether you talk about Mark McCormack or WPP, were the same because we were starting a business from scratch. The one thing you learn is you’re always in a sense or another controlled or influenced or trapped 
by some person or group of people or constituency.

Q: What kind of skills came in handy when you set up these businesses?

A: When I was knighted, I had to design a shield because I’m second generation British so I don’t have any family going back to the Battle of Hastings and you have to have a motto. Mine is ‘persistencia et celeritate’, which means persistence and speed. None of those things are particularly intellectual. I think you have to be bright but do you have to be intellectually brilliant? I don’t think so. You need to be focused and you need to be persistent. You need to be increasingly quick because of all the things you need to know about in terms of technology and the way the world’s changing.

Q: Do you think that over time you changed the way you run a company?

A: Yes. It changed enormously because over the last 20 or so years we’ve become obsessed with the new markets and we’ve become more obsessed with new media. Over the last four months, we also introduced ‘horizontality’. It’s about getting people to work together partly because of technology but mainly because clients are demanding it. Teams need to work together across clients and across countries.

Q: How?

A: My mantra is kiss and punch. WPP is a multi-branded company which has been growing by acquisitions. The easiest model to manage, I think, is a uni-branded model that’s grown organically. So McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are inherently a simpler model because they have one brand and they’ve primarily grown organically. A multi-branded company like ours, which has grown by acquisitions, is more difficult because we have done hostile acquisitions, but even more importantly, we have acquired companies that have historically competed with one another. So we have to bring them into the same group and that’s inherently difficult. It takes time.

Q: How do you do that?

A: By being persistent. By saying to them ad nauseam that clients are really not interested in the individual brands. You might be because that’s your empire but clients aren’t. Clients want the best people working on their business. So we are trying to make people work together in the best possible way.

Q: How difficult is that?

A: Generally, the perception of the client is the bigger you get the worse you get. So what you’ve got to do is keep it a bit messy because people don’t like bureaucracies. Another real problem is that good people tend to be less cooperative than bad people because they tend to think they can do it all. If you join a company that’s been around for a long time, people there tend to think that they know it all. They say, “We tried that ten years ago, it didn’t work.” People don’t acknowledge that things and circumstances change.

Q: In terms of hiring, what are you looking for in people?

A: I think they should be smart; the word aggressive is overused, but pushy; confident but not arrogant; intelligent but not overly intellectual. You have to be able to cut through the wooliness of things and get to the point. You have to understand our industry, understand our clients, understand people dynamics, understand the complexity and understand that the world is going to be more and more messy. The 21st century is not for 
tidy minds. And the messier it is the better it is. Understanding the heart of what we do is key: differentiating things in an increasingly undifferentiated world, where technology is becoming more important and where there’s more choice.

Q: When you think back to a hire that maybe didn’t work out, why was that?

A: Well, it happens all the time. It’s what I call the Jesus Christ or Moses phenomenon. When you hire somebody, he or she is the solution to all the problems and then six months later, you find he or she wasn’t the solution.

Q: Why does that happen?

A: Because people don’t think about it enough. They don’t evaluate it carefully. You think longer about buying a laptop or a BlackBerry than hiring someone because you’re desperate for someone to fill a gap or solve a problem.

— International Herald Tribune

(Distributed by 
The New York Times Syndicate)

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