What price WPP chief executive?

The only certain thing to emerge from the imbroglio over Martin Sorrell’s proposed remuneration package is fog.

If the package gains shareholder approval next Monday, Sorrell could become very much richer. How much, and over what period of time, is trickier to discern. Figures of between 25m (WPP’s own estimate) and 35m have been bandied about. They invite comparisons of UK corporate greed. Is Sorrell, or anyone else for that matter, worth that much?

Evidently he thinks so, and offers a rather different context by way of justification. He is not a UK chief executive, but the chief executive officer of a global marketing services organisation, most of whose business comes out of the US. So, the appropriate market benchmarks are Bruce Crawford of Omnicom and Phil Geier of Interpublic, who suffer from none of the remuneration constraints imposed on top-flight British business executives.

Specious, say the band of dissident shareholders led by Robert Fleming and Alistair Ross Goobey’s Hermes. Autres pays, autres moeurs. Standards of living are different in the US and WPP should relocate to New York if that’s how Sorrell feels. Which, it is understood, he may just do, regardless of the vote.

The discussion over “how much?” is in anycase academic. More than half Sorrell’s maximum remuneration depends on WPP outperforming, on one analysis, the fourth-best performing stock on the FTSE 100 in a five-year period. During the whole of which Sorrell would have to retain shares representing 2.2m of his own money, whatever market conditions.

Given the imponderability, it is interesting that the City has seized upon precisely this – the capital investment element of the package – as its chief grievance. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue, it is hard to avoid the conclusion there is some sort of grudge match here. City investors are rarely forgiving of disappointment, and WPP certainly gave them that aplenty during the late recession. Sorrell, as the ultimate author of these woes, may not have suffered enough.

While no explicit parallel has been drawn with the furore over executive pay in the utilities, it is not entirely idle to ask if one exists. It may be uncharitable to point out, but Fleming, for example, is still a major contributor to the Conservative Party.

Be that as it may, the vote on Monday will probably go to Sorrell. But it may be a damn close-run thing.

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