For someone in the relatively unusual position of running an agency without any previous agency experience (as I am) the recent Sorrellean tragicomedy has been fascinating. The flounce out of office while decrying the WPP model followed by the subsequent announcement of a new agency was compelling viewing. Apart from being eminently side-eye-able in the same way as a polite row in a restaurant, it has injected a new sense of urgency to a series of questions that I’ve been pondering for a while. Questions like - what does the agency family look like and are Mum and Dad about to get divorced? What is Contented Brothers’ place in the family? Is even thinking that we should have a place outdated thinking? Who was responsible for getting Sorrell to sign a non-compete on the way out and when will they be “flouncing and announcing?” Might the term “flounce and announce” be my contribution to the business lexicon? And if so can I retire now please?
Amongst the many things that I didn’t develop during my (lack of) agency grounding was an opinion about Sorrell either way. I was obviously dimly aware of him, conscious that he had built an enormous empire, and someone once told me that he always answered emails quickly which felt like an important detail for some reason. Having read up about it in the subsequent deluge of ink spilt on the split (and to which I’m adding) I wished I’d paid more attention at the time. In particular I’m quite sad I missed the Leary obsession with succession because it strikes me as wonderfully Shakespearean. I love the idea of Sorrell pounding a mahogany table while shouting “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again” before a member of the C-Suite tries to heave his heart into his mouth. It also strikes me as potentially ageist which, while I am as conscious as anyone (hopefully) of the “pale, stale and male” issue, I am increasingly suspicious of, a position that gets more entrenched the older I get.
I first become professionally conscious of WPP when we suddenly stopped working with one of our early clients (who turned out to be a WPP agency). On enquiry it turned out that there had been an internal edict to use only WPP resource wherever possible “on pain of death.” This was problematic to us at the time as this relationship was responsible for a significant percentage of our revenue (another thing that I hadn’t learnt was “a very bad thing.”) As important to us as the cash was the fact that we really enjoyed the projects and the people. We had, in our minds, been producing good work so the change hurt for a number of reasons. It also felt counter to an assumption, or possibly ideal, that I had about the creative industries in which collaboration and partnership were two of the things to be sort out and cherished. If I’m completely honest it probably also tweaked a few of the old not-in-the-gang nerves of past playgrounds but let’s leave that there. At this time, rightly or wrongly, WPP, and Sorrell with it, came to exemplify a kind of walled garden approach to creative endeavour in which the spreadsheet is the most important canvas. This also marked the first time that we started to seriously think about our place in the world. A process that is ongoing to this day. In the passing years we have developed many productive relationships with agencies and have even worked with a couple of other WPP agencies on projects so no hard feelings. As we have grown I have also become much more wedded to a spreadsheet myself, so you reap what you sow I guess.
I am still on that journey of discovery that started all those years ago to determine our place in the world: to find out who we can work with and how we work with them. Thankfully we have also collected and connected with enough smart, experienced individuals that as I embark on this second phase of incorporate self-discovery we’ll have some interesting guides on the way. I’ll keep you posted. Let me know if you have any thoughts?