Sorrell talks Maurice Lévy, global prospects

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Martin Sorrell at Advertising Week Europe.
Martin Sorrell at Advertising Week Europe.

The WPP boss says Publicis Groupe's Omnicom merger collapsed because Maurice Lévy failed to show John Wren "sufficient respect."

LONDON — Last year's attempts for a mega-merger of equals between Publicis Groupe and Omnicom collapsed because Maurice Lévy failed to show John Wren "sufficient respect," according to WPP's Martin Sorrell, who went on to talk retirement plans, Tesco and Dunnhumby.

Asked if he had any regrets about the way he has ever treated his competition over the years, Sorrell was adament he had "no regrets." Noting comments made by Publicis Groupe chairman, Maurice Lévy, earlier this week, who called him "nasty" and compared him to a scorpion, ("it is in the nature of some people to pinch"), Sorrell said: "Maurice is becoming obsessed with it.

"He just found it very difficult to get over the fact that he blew up on POG (the failed Publicis Omnicom merger). I think over time, what has eaten away at him, and continues to do so, is when he losses out. He lost out on Cordiant [acquisition in 2013], he lost out on Y&R [acquisition in 2000], and I think he obssesses about that.

"I think he should obssess about the reasons why he failed on POG [last year], and the reasons why he failed on POG is because he didn't treat [Omnicom's chief executive] John Wren with sufficient respect, it's as simple as that."

Talking about his interview yesterday at Advertising Week Europe with Olympic sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, WPP's leader said he had been "more unassuming" than Olympic GB Cycling Team leader Sir David Brailsford, whom he interviewed for the event in 2013.

Sorrell said: "With Ben Ainslie, it's a little bit more difficult to penetrate, and maybe that's because early success was as a lone sailor, now he's managing a team of 100-plus people. It's a very different task from when he's doing Finn Class, or whatever the other boats were in the early days. The America's Cup is a big, big undertaking and a very different undertaking so all credit to him."

However, Sorrell, who founded WPP 30 years ago, rejected the idea that he himself had ever been a lone sailor, "not with 180,000 people." The chief executive, who turned 70 years old in February, also batted away a question about any retirement plans saying he's "not in the grave yet.".He later added: "They'll cart me off to the glue factory," before insisting he finds the marketing and advertising business "just as interesting as it's ever been."

In terms of regrets, he pointed to "over leveraging" the company in 1989 when he bought the Ogilvy Group for $825 million [sic, $864 million], although added they have since "knocked the ball out of the park in terms of getting that value."

He also admitted he did not always get his "work/life balance" right, in terms of his career being "ultra-important and probably overly important," but the leader of the group with a market capitalization of £20.5 billion ($30.5 billion) noted "few people can do all three" when it comes to family, society and career.

Sorrell on Tesco and Dunnhumby
Campaign asked WPP's leader if there was any leverage to be had as the world's largest marketing group revealed it is "interested" in a possible acquisition of Tesco's data specialist Dunnhumby at the same time the supermarket giant started a review of its media planning and buying business.

Sorrell, ever the master of riding two horses at the same time, flatly denied the two moves could ever be played off one another, calling them "totally separate things." Sorrell added that "we couldn't do a Bolloré" — a reference to Havas' chairman, Yannick Bolloré, who is rumored to have secured Telefónica's global media business for O2 without a pitch in October 2014 as part of a separate asset sale managed by his father Vincent via Vivendi.

China and US to drive global growth
When it comes to the drivers of the global economy in 2015, WPP's chief executive believes it will be "very similar to 2014, calling it "another G2 year" — referring to China and the US "in that order." He added: "We should all wish that China grows as rapidly as possible because we all benefit as a result."

In terms of the UK, Sorrell reiterated his belief that Britain’s economic recovery faces uncertainty after the General Election, whichever party wins.

He said: "I think things will slow after the election because whoever wins will have to deal with the budget again because people forget we're still over spending. Real government spending may have fallen but nominal government spending has risen. Whether it's a Conservative-led government or a Labour-led government, they'll have to deal with the economics again, and then we'll get into that five-year cycle again. And if the Conservatives are in control we will have a referendum, which will add to the uncertainty too."

Sorrell does forecast "more life" in the big five markets in Europe, but expects gains made by quantative easing and falls in oil prices to be offset by the ongoing uncertainty in the Middle East and issues about the US deficit.

He said: "The Grey Swans as we call them, and goodness knows what Black Swans might emerge, result in our clients behaving in an 'acautious' way, so we'll see a little bit of incremental growth and we have to manage our business accordingly."

This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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