Erik Oster contributed to this report.
WPP has hired two outside law firms to investigate several anonymous, encrypted emails sent to its current and former employees, which came from a WhatsApp group that included onetime executive assistants to Martin Sorrell, the holding company’s founder and ex-CEO who abruptly stepped down in April, the Financial Times first reported.
The Financial Times (FT) and Wall Street Journal both obtained the emails that they said contain portions of messages between current and former employees but did not reveal much else of the content. The FT did report one email was sent from a senior WPP executive to a junior employee, and that certain discussions involved Sorrell’s travel arrangements and company bonus plan.
A WPP spokesman confirmed in a statement to Adweek that “one former and two current employees have received a total of six emails between them from an anonymous source hiding behind a ProtonMail account based in Switzerland,” and that the holding company is “aware of the original source of the subject matter of the emails, which is a former employee’s mobile device used for work and handed in when the employee left the group.”
The spokesman said it “passed these emails to external legal counsel who are providing advice for the benefit of WPP and the three recipients.”
WPP hired law firms Slaughter and May and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy to investigate the emails, according to the FT.
“I have no idea what this is about,” a spokesman from Project Associates, the London firm that represents Sorrell in a personal capacity, wrote in an email to Adweek.
The probe is just the latest in a series of scandalous leaks surrounding Sorrell’s departure.
Earlier this month, the FT dropped an explosive story, later followed up by the Wall Street Journal, that reported Sorrell’s resignation came as WPP’s board of directors investigated allegations into him spending company money on the services of a prostitute. The FT story also detailed Sorrell’s alleged cruelty and verbal abuse aimed at lower staff, citing discussions with 25 anonymous individuals.
Sorrell has vehemently denied those allegations.
Speaking on a panel at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Sorrell publicly discredited the prostitution allegations, as well as any suggestions that he treated employees unfairly.
“Am I an easy person to deal with? No. Am I demanding? Yes,” Sorrell said on the panel, moderated by The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, the author of Frenemies. In regards to the 25 people the FT cited in its story, he argued that “maybe they spoke to the wrong 25 people.”
Sorrell is also in the midst of building up his new venture, S4 Capital, which he has claimed does not plan to directly compete with WPP. Still, the company is planning to “build a multinational communication services business” via acquisitions, just as WPP did over the past 33 years under Sorrell’s direction.