A conversation with Sir Martin Sorrell is always insightful, even if it tends to verge on the professorial. The WPP boss usually has a prepared message - whether it’s data, digital, China, content or the economy - he wants to get across to the media with something of a missionary zeal.
He treats journalists (and perhaps some of his staff and clients too) much as a teacher might treat a promising student. He listens to your questions politely, engages in some debate, then explains at length why he is right and everyone else is wrong. Each of his points is referenced with the necessary theory, anecdotes, and facts and figures that would make it hopeless to question his argument. Indeed, if ever proof were required that brains will go further in business than any other single quality, then Sorrell would be it.
So, on meeting him in Hong Kong on the eve of his company’s 25th anniversary, it seemed fitting to ask what point in its evolution WPP has now reached in Asia. And where has he got to in his own career?
The full interview with Sorrell will be in Media’s 20 May issue. In it, he looks back at the Asatsu-DK deal (among Sorrell’s most memorable for giving WPP an advantage in that market), the purchase of digital hotshop Agenda (courted by all his rivals) and his reflection on the sad demise of Asia’s iconic agency, Batey.
It was refreshing to discover that Sorrell isn’t averse to the occasional moment of sentimentality about the length of his journey. True, he struggled to recall anything he would have done differently in his career (it would be churlish of him to do so). But there were early recollections of Asia; including a train journey to Guangzhou in 1989 when on seeing Chinese labourers building on a Sunday (while most Brits were in the pub enjoying a long lunch) he had his first personal realisation that China would be a global powerhouse.
Ironically, for all his talk of the region’s significance in the global marketplace and praise for local successes, WPP continues to fill the top jobs in Asia with talent from overseas. When will Sorrell’s line-up of agency heads in the region be replaced by locals?
It’s not a question that sits comfortably with the WPP chief. The holding company’s policy is to try to avoid using expatriates. But in many Asian markets, including China, where the business has grown so fast, the policy is difficult to follow. Understandably, there’s a need to have specialised expat talent in emerging markets. Moreover, expats are seen as culturally neutral across a region as complex as this.
Increasingly though, Asian markets are becoming a source of talent for the rest of the world. Just look at Unilever, which has 400 or so Indian leaders dotted around the world. The trend globally is turning. And as he looks to WPP’s future, Sorrell knows that better than anyone else.
Got a view?
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