It’s Time to Stop Focusing on Martin Sorrell’s Next Moves

And instead make room for lesser known agency names

Rather than waiting for Martin Sorrell's next move, we should be looking to the industry's newcomers. Getty Images
Headshot of Gabriella Mirabelli

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Martin Sorrell, the entrepreneur extraordinaire who took a wire basket company and built it into WPP, the largest advertising business in the world, suddenly retired on April 14. His departure was the direct result of an investigation into allegations (which he denies) of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets. These allegations were serious enough to prompt a surprise weekend retirement, but not apparently material enough to disclose the details to shareholders. So much for transparency.

Subsequent to his abrupt departure, there was speculation around what he’d do next. The Financial Times noted he didn’t have a non-compete. At a conference in New York ,he made his first comments on the topic, saying that he wasn’t retiring and that he loved the advertising industry. Then at the end of May, we got our answer: Mr. Sorrell plans to invest and take control of Derriston Capital, a U.K.-listed shell company that he will—wait for it—use to create a new marketing and advertising group. WPP, the sequel.

I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.

Martin Sorrell defined an industry sector, but his days of crafting the future are, I believe, over. Prior to his sudden exit, WPP had lost one-third of its market value. Yes, the industry is changing in fundamental ways, but he wasn’t ahead of the curve meeting that challenge. He didn’t disrupt the status quo. He didn’t see the disruption and transform his legacy business. Even now, he’s using his legacy approach to meet an entirely transformed and rapidly changing landscape.

As a global businessman, he sees who the powerhouses are now and which sectors of WPP were challenged. But much like knowing the winners of a horse race after they’ve won, there’s no prize money in that.

It’s the people who are operating outside the structure that often spot the opportunities for innovation and are generally ignored as they incubate disruption.

Who matters? In addition to the new media leviathans, the people who matter are likely people you haven’t heard about yet. It’s the people who are operating outside the structure that often spot the opportunities for innovation and are generally ignored as they incubate disruption. Moreover, I think it likely that this group of new thinkers will be a good deal more diverse than the current ad agency population.

As Sonja Perkins, managing director of the Perkins Fund and one of the best performing professionals in venture capital told me when I interviewed her earlier this month, “It’s important that you have diverse teams developing diverse products and diverse venture capitalists funding diverse teams.” Why? Because lack of diversity leaves blind spots you can drive a truck through. Ideas, products and services all need to be pushed and pulled to see where the weaknesses are. Diversity leads to more robust scenario testing. Perhaps if the teams at Facebook had been more diverse, they would have been able to imagine how their data might be used or misused. Moreover, diverse perspectives enable an organization to spot opportunities that might be missed by a more homogenous group (e.g., a Muslim woman who spots the opportunity to develop a line of fashionable modest clothing).

So rather than spending column inches on someone whose story has been told, and told again, let’s spill some digital ink on that Hispanic woman who has a new tech startup that really lets me buy the shoes I see on a show, immediately and seamlessly. Or maybe I can read about the gay entrepreneur who has developed cost-effective proprietary wireless connectivity technology that powers hyper-local advertising while still preserving privacy. I want to be told about the black man who is revolutionizing the way that companies conduct focus groups. And I seriously think we all need someone to explain, again, how blockchain will disintermediate entertainment and connect consumers directly with content creators.

In a nutshell, the people whose stories and next moves matter are liable to be the ones we haven’t heard of yet. The people who are seeing the gaps—and filling them.

@g_Mirabelli Gabriella Mirabelli is the evp consumer insights and brand strategy at Valence Media.