Sorrell successor should place diversity at top of to-do list

As an iconic leader unveils his new plans, his former employer's annual review draws a perfunctory line under its founder's 33-year contribution to the company.

Only five of marketing services network WPP's 44 company leaders are women.
Only five of marketing services network WPP's 44 company leaders are women.

WPP’s annual report always makes interesting reading, but this year’s tome is even more fascinating than normal given the recent exit of holding company founder and CEO Martin Sorrell.

It also has extra resonance after this week’s announcement that Sorrell will definitely not be retreating quietly into the shadows of retirement. Rather, he is launching a multinational communications services business under the umbrella brand S4 Capital, concentrating on technology, data, and content.

Clearly, there’s a glaring hole in the book that the Sorrell factor would previously have filled in his inimitable and usually entertaining manner. Executive chairman Roberto Quarta merely says the "departure of the group chief executive was, of course, a difficult moment for WPP."

It’s certainly going to be interesting in Cannes in a couple of weeks with Sorrell set to take to the main stage in Le Palais in a non-WPP guise for the first time in several decades. Whatever you think of him, the guy is box office and knows how to play the media game.

But his is the name that dare not be spoken in the substantial WPP document. There is no thank you for decades of service or even acknowledgement of the tremendous contribution Sorrell made to building the holding company and being a global advocate for marketing and advertising in general. No grand finale. No goodbye. That’s a shame.

Quarta notes that the "group chief executive's" departure, much speculated about for years, could have come about through a "planned transition over time" or an "unforeseen event." "We would not have chosen the latter, but that is what happened and we were prepared for it," he claims.

Mark Read and Andrew Scott are now running the business in the interim as joint COOs and external search consultants have been appointed to find a new CEO. Internal and external candidates are under consideration in a process that will be "concluded as quickly as possible," but with "no set timeframe," according to Quarta.

Sorrell’s passion for injecting "horizontality" throughout the group survives in the annual report, with that being named as one of four strategic priorities in 2017. Whether the new CEO retains the passion for that word in 2018 and beyond remains to be seen. You already sense a drawing back, even if just in terms of nomenclature, because the word was so associated with Sorrell.

Elsewhere, WPP’s report shows just five of the holding company’s 44 company leaders are women, with one of those being Burson Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato. The group could hardly be described as ethnically diverse either.

A separate montage of WPP’s client team leaders shows 17 of 51 individuals are women; four of 17 country and regional managers are female.

In 2013, 29% of the WPP board was comprised of women, 36% of the non-executive directors. In 2017, this had actually dropped to 25% and 30% respectively. Depressing.

In his chairman’s letter to shareholders, Quarta rightly identifies that the past year has "shone a welcome light on the issue of gender equality within the advertising and marketing services industry," and admits this has been, at times, an "uncomfortable experience for your company."

He claims the board has worked with the executive team to accelerate the development of senior female leaders and monitor the pipeline of female talent. The analysis above suggests there is still a vast amount of work to do on this front.

The company leader reports disappeared from WPP’s annual review this year, as did the glossy photography from the 2016 book, replaced by colorful illustrations.

It all smacks of an organization in transition that is waiting to discover its new face and personality. You can’t help feeling this process needs to conclude sooner rather than later, before the speculation and uncertainty around the group becomes even more febrile than it is now.

WPP's first annual report in 1986 is a charming reminder of the roots of the marketing and communications industry we love so much. It's well worth a read, if just to marvel at the - male-dominated of course - black and white photos of the company leaders at the back of the book. And yes, for a time WPP did manufacture its eponymous wire and plastic products...

It splits out the group's £26.7 million annual revenues into six buckets: graphics and design (30%), incentive and motivation (25%), specialist communications (28%), audiovisual and visual communications (4%), manufacturing (6%), and sales promotion (7%).

Time has marched on inexorably since then.The buzzwords now have evolved to include technology, data, analytics, content, direct, digital, and interactive.

WPP’s next "group CEO" will be responsible for injecting new X factors into a much-changed £15.27 billion holding company divorced from the personality of its iconic founder for the first time.

Making a statement about gender and ethnic diversity in leadership would be an excellent place to start in terms of establishing a dynamic footprint and making a statement about their desired direction of travel.

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