"The worm will turn": Martin Sorrell says investment in brands will return

WPP's CEO addresses present uncertainty in the industry and future changes

LONDON — Sir Martin Sorrell has told a conference that businesses will eventually renew investment in their brands, in agencies and in creativity — also telling the audience that he disliked what he called the "snooty attitude" some business people still have toward creativity.

The WPP CEO was speaking Tuesday at the D2 Creativity conference, organised by Hill+Knowlton Strategies, part of WPP.

"Although the climate may not be conducive to investing in brands, the worm will turn," he said of some businesses’ apparent reluctance to bring in agencies given the current economy.

"The case is proven — it’s very easy to prove that where you invest in brands, and invest in creativity and invest in data, you win. But the climate at the minute is not that — it’s a climate of uncertainty."

While Sorrell acknowledged that there were "understandable reasons" why many businesses did not want to make such investments in the present climate, he criticized the way some companies tried to procure agencies’ services.

He said many were "choosing agencies on the basis of payment terms", or asking agencies to effectively insure them against intellectual property infringement. "It doesn’t make sense," he said.

Sorrell pointed out that top companies’ CEOs had average tenures of five years, CFOs of four years and CMOs of nearer two years. "So of course people are going to be short-term; we’re too short-term focused," he said.

Sorrell also said that the presence of creativity should be a given across the marcoms profession, addng that he disliked the "snooty attitude" traditionally held that creativity only existed specifically within creative agencies or ad agencies. "That has proven not to be the case," he said.

Richard Millar, UK CEO and global chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who was interviewing Sorrell on stage, said, "I grew up in the day where the ad agency had the idea and everybody else ran on in behind."

"That is precisely what has changed," Sorrell replied.

Sorrell said that clients did not care what an agency they were working with called itself or whether it would be traditionally regarded as a creative agency, saying, "What the clients want is the best people working on their brands."

He went on to say that agencies should harness their creativity in technology, data and content: "The much more important thing is not to sit here and talk about how important creativity is – the really interesting thing is about how technology, how data, how social media and new media are changing the way we talk about ideas," he said.

He also said: "When you have people talking about creativity, it tends to become a bit supercilious and a bit airy-fairy, I think."

Directly after Sorrell, the conference heard Alex Jenkins of creativity consultancy and events organizer Contagious give a talk on "The dangers of anti-creativity," in which he described academic research that found many people actually had a deep-seated mistrust of creativity, especially in uncertain climates. He suggested some of this could come from the predominantly financial backgrounds of top firms’ CEOs.

Other speakers included Sam Baker, co-founder of The Pool, a female-orientated online news, lifestyle and culture platform that is finding new ways of reaching its target audience; BuzzFeed director of brand strategy David Pugh-Jones; the co-founder of social enterprise supermarket hiSbe Ruth Anslow; and Google global agency business leader Phil Jones, who talked about the Google Cardboard virtual-reality product and its potential applications.

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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