New CEO for ad firm has big shoes to fill

LONDON • WPP, the world's biggest advertising company, headed into uncharted territory yesterday without its founder Martin Sorrell, whose departure has left it rudderless at a time of swirling industry change.

The driving force behind 33 years of dealmaking and relentless expansion, he stepped down last Saturday after the board investigated an allegation of misconduct.

While WPP hunts for a new CEO, it has handed the helm to two executives, digital boss Mark Read and WPP Europe chief operating officer Andrew Scott, making them joint chief operating officers.

The sudden departure of Mr Sorrell, who turned a 1985 investment in a wire shopping basket manufacturer into today's behemoth of more than 200,000 employees in more than 400 companies across 112 countries, has sparked questions as to whether the holding group can remain in its current form.

"Sorrell's departure is negative considering... how instrumental he has been in assembling the assets WPP has today," said Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser.

"Any executive filling his shoes needs to orchestrate assets across the holding company and doing so is a challenge in a fragmented federation of businesses such as those which exist within WPP."

The 73-year-old's departure comes at a difficult time for the British company. In March, it published its weakest results since the financial crisis as consumer goods groups such as Unilever and P&G cut spending and other customers jumped ship.

The whole industry is also battling the might of Google and Facebook, which dominate the online advertising market.

Mr Sorrell quit WPP less than two weeks after the leak of a probe being conducted by the company into allegations of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets and just days before the board was set to publish the findings. He has denied the allegations and WPP said last Saturday that the investigation was complete, without revealing details.

He was an elder statesman of the advertising industry, earning a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. He was among Britain's longest-serving CEOs in recent memory, appearing regularly in public to discuss issues from Brexit to United States President Donald Trump's trade wars.

He courted controversy with his pugnacious manner and inflated pay package, particularly at a time when WPP's revenue stalled.

In a statement to WPP employees, he said the current disruption was putting "too much unnecessary pressure on the business" and that in the interest of the company and clients, it was "best for me to step aside".

He sought to boost morale in his farewell message, arguing that WPP has weathered "difficult storms" in the past.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2018, with the headline 'New CEO for ad firm has big shoes to fill'. Print Edition | Subscribe