Media coverage of Sir Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP is a further indictment of my long-held view that journalists are not just for Christmas – and financial results. The timing of his announcement – late on Saturday evening – was odd. Normally, a late night announcement is designed to stymie a potentially damaging scoop, but that wasn’t the case here. It came after the first editions had gone to press, and immediately meant some editorials were defunct.
Sunday hacks spend their entire week searching for a great story, so I would have expected some outrage that they had been outwitted, but no... Virtually every outlet faithfully reproduced Sir Martin’s emotional statement in full, and most wheeled out the story of how a tiny Kent-based wire basket maker transformed into an advertising behemoth. Of course, it would have been weird had they not mentioned Sir Martin’s controversial remuneration – totalling more than £200 million over the past five years – or WPP’s lacklustre performance in recent months but, in the main, there was little criticism of the outgoing chief executive.
Why? Sir Martin is the journalist’s friend. Renowned for his speedy response to emails, there is not a platform that he has not stood upon, a conference at which he has not spouted his views or publications in which his opinion pieces have been aired. He is the master of soundbites. He’s spoken of four grey swans (the four known unknowns); the black swan (an unknown known) that represented the tension between Russia and Ukraine; and then there was the grey swan that was turning white. He’s had a view on pretty much everything from artificial intelligence to Formula One and even the Kardashians. He's had us scratching our heads at his analogies, but he's also filled those important column inches. And many a hack has called for a chat when under pressure from an irate news editor.
And, in return, the media treated his departure respectfully. Chris Blackhurst, a former editor of The Independent, even opined that the business world needs more Sorrells, people prepared to state their views and not hide behind their PR men. It's good advice for clients. Make friends on the way up, because you might just need them on the way down – as Fred Goodwin famously learned.