LONDON — WPP will never be the same again, say industry leaders after the weekend's shock news that Sir Martin Sorrell is ending his 33-year run at the helm of the giant holding group. And a broader transformation of the company is likely required, some added, even if it could be too little, too late.

"Martin, in essence, was WPP," said Donna Imperato, who Sorrell recently named as Burson Cohn & Wolfe CEO after several years of standout performance at Cohn & Wolfe. "I am deeply sad about his departure."

Imperato added that "WPP will miss Martin," pointing out that he is effectively irreplaceable "in terms of the individual he is, caring, intelligent and visionary."

Sorrell's passion for the company he built into a global marketing behemoth meant that he oversaw its operations with the kind of microscopic attention to detail that is rare among major CEOs, an approach that was sometimes dubbed 'Sorrell-centricity'.

"He was more than just a CEO, he was akin to [Elon] Musk at Tesla or [Mark] Zuckerberg at Facebook — he had a vision for a globally connected marketing services group with a strong focus on digital , data and developing markets," said R3 principal Greg Paull, who previously worked for Sorrell at Bates. "Until the annus horribilis of 2017, he was on track to achieve it."

"He will be a significant loss to the industry," added Paull. "He has the loudest voice and the longest term insights. The challenge now will be to find more visionaries in a sector that is constantly evaluating performance every 90 days."

To WPP, "he meant everything", said a former CEO of one of the holding group's largest advertising agencies, encompassing the good and the bad. On the plus side — "the culture: a holding company that tried to add value selectively; that advocated excellence; that sat at the top global table."

"I doubt we will see the like of Martin Sorrell again," said Finsbury CEO Roland Rudd on Twitter. "It took vision, risk, innovation, determination and energy to build a global leader. Some have some of those qualities; very few have all."

However, the former WPP ad agency CEO argued that Sorrell's blind spots should not be overlooked — "by treating all companies as equal limited the growth of some; that relied excessively on the financial controller to make decisions; that was too flat in structure."

Meanwhile, there are also agency leaders within WPP who are happy to cast the dramatic change as a positive one, particularly if it brings with it the kind of transformation that can revive WPP's fortunes at a time of immense pressure.

"This will allow WPP to transform and grow," said one current WPP agency CEO. "[Sorrell] didn’t know what the strategy was moving forward. He was slowing progress down — we’re under siege and he wasn’t driving us through it."

Sorrell + PR 

Those familiar with Sorrell will know that he rarely immersed himself in the public relations world, representing as it did a significant diversion from his comfort zone of marketing budgets and economic prognostication. Nevertheless, says Richard Edelman, Sorrell's impact on the PR industry should not be underestimated — with the Edelman CEO describing the former WPP CEO as a "singular force" and "the most important voice in our industry."

"He was the first one to understand the possibility of agencies being the organising force and creating bespoke teams," Edelman told the Holmes Report. "Also the first to recognise the power of insight and research, while for the PR business he definitely pushed corporate and public affairs. He was the most hardworking, entrepreneurial guy. Relentless. He pushed everyone — you had to be on your best game."

Despite this, Sorrell's PR agencies did not fare particularly well over the past decade. "Unfortunately, public relations was not among the marketing services areas in which WPP consistently excelled under Martin’s command," says Signal Leadership Communication principal Bob Pickard, who worked for two WPP PR firms. "Just consider what happened to Burson-Marsteller and H+K. Prior to WPP ownership, these were the top two PR firms in the world. Now look at them, way behind, trying to struggle and consolidate their way out of the second-tier."

Indeed, Sorrell's interviews with this publication often involved a certain degree of jousting regarding the mediocre performance of his PR agencies. Initially, there were signs of resistance to the idea that PR firms could go after bigger marketing budgets, a stance that had visibly softened by last year — hastened, no doubt, by the rise of Cohn & Wolfe at the expense of corporate/public affairs heavyweights such as Burson-Marsteller and H+K Strategies.

"The industry at large will also miss Martin for his deep knowledge and vision about the future of communication," said Imperato. "His perspectives helped many other agencies and holding companies make the right moves. Martin led the way." 

Yet it is perhaps telling that Sorrell's farewell message to staff did not mention a single PR agency among his hallmark achievements. 

Leadership void

Sorrell was a famously polarising figure, and there is no doubt that many will be cheering his professional demise. As Pickard puts it, Sorrell's "personal accessibility, sweeping ambition, client-centrism, and unrelenting work ethic," were hard to miss.

Pickard recalls being struck by these characteristics when he first met the WPP chief during the early 90s, but noted that they were accompanied by "less admirable attributes" — "on the other side of the ledger, Martin's monomania for profit margin and love of inflicting legal punishment on foes."

Others are far more charitable, even if they admit that Sorrell's hard-nosed nature came with the territory, rendering many arguments a futile exercise. "In his role as CEO, Martin was tough as nails," said Imperato, referencing the quarterly financial meetings that agency CEOs learned to dread.

"He challenged us and expected his leaders to perform. No excuses. But his leadership style drove me to challenge myself and always try to outperform so he couldn’t poke holes. But he’d always find something. It was enjoyable to try to keep up with his intelligence."

"He was immensely stimulating to work for, if you had patience and willingness to sublimate pride," adds the former CEO. "One got to a point when one could disagree and he would listen: but you had to earn it and it was one of those rare moments."

Whether WPP can find someone of comparable magnitude to take on the CEO role remains to be seen. As the current WPP agency CEO puts it, the opportunity may be there to find a leader "who doesn't need to control everything."

Whoever that is will also need to reckon with Sorrell's methods of dealing with underperforming agencies and people. "He certainly did not like complete yes men, though he was surprisingly reluctant to fire non-performers, would always shrink from any direct confrontation with them, and has tolerated quite a few," says the former WPP agency CEO. "He was not always a good judge of character."

Regardless, Sorrell's exit will leave a glaring void at the heart of the company which he embodied. WPP may yet survive, but whether it will ever cut the quite the same figure remains to be seen. "Nothing disastrous," says the former CEO. "But it will lose a bit of British frankness and cut and thrust." 

"He was a true leader, never far away from the next new business opportunity," notes Paull. "He never suffered fools gladly, and was the most hands on leader I have ever come across. No pitch was too small or too far away to miss his involvement and added value. He wanted to win."

Which, of course, makes his departure all the more surprising. Even at the age of 73, Sorrell had displayed little sign of slowing down. "I think he has too much energy to retire. I suspect he will lead some incubators or invest in related data businesses where he sees potential," says Paull. "His daughter will turn 21 when he’s 90 and I suspect the old man will still be on his Blackberry at her birthday party."

Additional reporting by Diana Marszalek