Sir Martin Sorrell: It’s nonsense to suggest I’m not interested in creativity

The former boss of WPP says creativity is at the centre of what his new company, S4 Capital, does but admits the nature of creativity has changed due to the rise of data.

Sir Martin Sorrell

Since Sir Martin Sorrell left WPP earlier this year, much has been written about his career and the company he spent more than 30 years building. One observation often repeated is that Sorrell isn’t interested in creativity, instead focused on how he can use scale to cut costs and increase profit margins.

However, speaking at the Festival of Marketing this morning (11 October), Sorrell said this isn’t true and that at his new company S4 Capital creativity will be “at the centre”.

“It is nonsense to suggest we’re not interested, involved or that creativity is not at the centre of what we do, it is a fundamental misreading of what’s happened,” he explained.

However, he believes the nature of creativity has changed and that agencies need to realise this rather than looking back through “rose-tinted spectacles at the Don Draper era”.

“The nature of creativity is changed. The thing that used to drive me nuts, and it’s not just in the last couple of years, it goes back 10 years, is the attitude of traditional agencies to creativity and the nature of creativity. The thought that that was the sole area of the creative director in the big traditional agency. It’s looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles back to the era of Don Draper and Mad Men,” he stated.

“The nature of the business has changed, the nature of the industry or the craft has changed. To suggest, for example, that data does not inform creativity is a nonsense. To say that it devalues creativity is a nonsense – it helps it, it informs it. Clients are looking for more efficient, better work in the environment we’re operating in, which is always on.”

One area where Sorrell does see things changing is the relationship between clients and agencies. He points to the fact that WPP has recently lost long-term clients including Ford and that brands are increasingly pitching as they look to stave off digital disruption.

READ MORE: Urgent change is needed at WPP despite Sorrell’s transformative legacy

“Overnight we see more account switches, changes in relationships that are in some cases more than 30 years old. Fundamental relationships in the industry, it is a good icon on what’s going on. There’s no business that I’m aware of, no CMO, CEO, CIO or CFO, that isn’t affected by digital transformation or digital disruption.

“We are seeing a radical revolution. There is significant disruption to established relationships and structures.”

The response to this, said Sorrell, is that agencies must be “faster, better, cheaper”, also a phrase often repeated in the investor prospectus for S4.

I’d like WPP and S4 to both be successful, there is no mutual incompatibility there. The question is how do you do it.

Martin Sorrell, S4 Capital

“Clients are under tremendous pressure. The packaged good clients post-Lehman, which is 10 years ago, faced economic growth that was tepid and there’s less inflation. Therefore there is very little pricing power so people focus on cost,” he explained.

“The GSK media review where four holding companies were locked in, it was done by the procurement team, is emblematic and indicative of the big changes that have taken place. You have to be much more efficient.”

Sorrell’s new company went up against WPP in bidding for Media Monks, a battle that S4 Capital eventually won, and Sorrell hinted at a second deal that is in the pipeline. Yet, he does not believe the future of the ad industry is a model that is either WPP or S4 Capital.

“I’d like WPP and S4 to both be successful, there is no mutual incompatibility there. The question is how do you do it,” he concluded.

“WPP is a legacy business. What’s good about S4 is we have a clean sheet of paper but I miss the scale. We are going to try to do something to narrow the gap [between S4 and WPP].”