Martin Sorrell Teases Ken Auletta and Reveals More Plans for S4 Capital in His First Post-Exit Cannes Appearance

Ex-WPP CEO says Google and Facebook are no longer 'frenemies' to marketers

Martin Sorrell's S4 Capital reported third-quarter earnings in line with expectations. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

CANNES, France—In what may be the least surprising bit of ad industry news to emerge in the past three months, Martin Sorrell confirmed today that for the past “eight, nine, 10 years,” the plan at WPP had been to have Wunderman CEO Mark Read and chief operating officer Andrew Scott take over as co-CEOs in the event of his own departure.

Sitting in an Irish pub on the Cannes bay with editor Stephen Lepitak of The Drum, Sorrell said, “there has been a succession plan, and it was planned on the basis of [me being] hit by a bus—which I guess I was—or shot.”

The now-former chief was in a surprisingly upbeat mood, though he did avoid directly mentioning his recent departure from the company he led for 33 years or the allegations that surfaced soon afterward.

“The plan was [always] for Mark Read and Andrew Scott to be joint CEOs,” he told the small, standing room only crowd, citing executive chairman [Roberto Quarta’s] calls for “continuity and stability” as signs that WPP will stick to that original arrangement. “Those two individuals—and I’m not saying two individuals because nobody could replace me—have complimentary skills,” he added, even though “one on their own would not be sufficient.”

Keeping things lighthearted, he then said of WPP’s board, “They’ve never listened to me in the last few weeks.”

Sorrell also teased author Ken Auletta ahead of their much-hyped interview on the Cannes Lions Festival’s final day, stating that the New Yorker writer had mischaracterized Horizon Media as one of the Big Six holding companies in his bestselling book “Frenemies.”

“It’s one of the mistakes in the book,” he said. “He quotes its billing number as opposed to its revenue number.”

On a related note, both Sorrell and representatives from Horizon Media declined to comment on claims from a source with knowledge of the matter who told Adweek that the ex-chairman met with Horizon CEO Bill Koenigsberg around the same time he announced the formation of his new company, S4 Capital.

In discussing that venture, Sorrell revived a description of the group as a tiny legume compared to WPP, saying, “I don’t see why anyone would be worried about a peanut, though it does occur to me that some people have peanut allergies.”

He stayed somewhat guarded about future plans but said he imagines a five- to seven-year “cycle” in which S4 will “try and deal at the very highest levels of the companies it work with and, at the same time, be able to tacitly implement in a totally different way: More agile, more responsive, less bureaucratic, more creative.”

In other words, he wants S4 Capital to resemble the dreaded consultancies because “all six holding companies (and I don’t like calling them that) are moving in the exact same direction.” Unlike agencies, he said, “the Accentures don’t compete for $5 million projects; they compete for change projects as high as $200 million.” Despite all this, Sorrell described as “nonsense” the idea that he is not interested in creative work, stating that he simply wants to use data to make creative work more effective even if it’s “not in the purely Bernbach or Ogilvy tradition.”

Finally, the former face of advertising disputed one of the key themes of Auletta’s book: that Google, Facebook and Amazon threaten to render his entire industry irrelevant. “The field has changed,” he said regarding the sometimes-contentious relationship between networks and platforms. “A few years ago, we were frenemies. I labeled them as flexible friends recently, and [now] I would go further to call them partners.”

Yet he still managed to get in a final dig at Zuckberberg and peers by describing them as “media companies masquerading as tech companies” while predicting ever more consolidation on the media side of things. “I’m not clever enough to figure out who’s going to do what to who,” he said, “but I think more will be coming.”

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.