How £450million advertising tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell is bouncing back

‘I won’t answer any tough questions’: Defiant tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell refuses to say if he used company cash to pay a prostitute and rubbishes claims of marital problems as bounces back with new business

  • Eight months ago Sir Martin Sorrell was the boss of famous advertising firm WPP 
  • Today the 73-year-old tycoon is running comparatively small S4 Capital
  • Sir Martin traces his Shakespearean change in fortune back to March 29 

‘That’s not a question I’m going to answer one way or the other.’ Sir Martin Sorrell – a beacon of British business, the grandest of City grandees, a man who has been knighted by the Queen – has just been asked whether he’s ever visited a prostitute. And the tension in his boardroom in the heart of Mayfair is almost suffocating.

How does it feel to be asked such a question? ‘We can move on.’ Is it humiliating? ‘Move on.’ Has he been treated unfairly? ‘Move on. Move on.’

Eight months ago, this formidable 73-year-old – the epitome of one of novelist Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe – had it all. He was the boss of WPP, a world-famous advertising firm he had built up from scratch into one of Britain’s biggest and most admired businesses. He had offices in all corners of the globe, with a workforce of 130,000. And he was a hero of British entrepreneurship, his views on the economy and markets sought after by investors and commentators worldwide.

A friend of the Royals, Sir Martin Sorrell was Britain’s best-paid boss – until accused of using company money to pay a prostitute

How times change. Today, Sir Martin has left WPP, a company he led for 33 years and came to see as his own ‘baby’, and is now the boss of a comparative minnow, S4 Capital, with only a few employees at his beck and call.

And because none of them is working on a wintry Friday evening, it has been left to him – a man who has amassed personal wealth of £450 million and was a guest at Harry and Meghan’s wedding – to answer S4 Capital’s doorbell, trudge down to the entrance of his townhouse office and escort his interviewer up to the firm’s one-floor headquarters in a tiny, juddering old lift.

So how has he ended up acting the bell-boy and facing questions about paying for prostitutes on company expenses?

Sir Martin traces his Shakespearean change in fortune back to Thursday, March 29, this year. He was looking forward to a family holiday on the continent for the long Easter weekend. But before jetting off he had been asked to attend an interview in WPP’s London headquarters. The interview was conducted by WPP’s lawyers, the US firm WilmerHale.

The tone of the interview had not been at all what he was expecting. He discovered he faced a major investigation into alleged misuse of company money and improper behaviour.

A few days later the allegations appeared in the US press. Sir Martin says it was then, late on a Tuesday evening while he was still abroad and before British newspapers picked up the story, that he decided to quit WPP. His resignation was formalised less than a fortnight later, late on a Saturday evening, following the conclusion of the mysterious probe.

With little information revealed by WPP – the allegations remained secret thanks to a non-disclosure agreement – the City rumour mill immediately went into overdrive.

Reports surfaced that Sir Martin had paid for a prostitute on company expenses. Sorrell has strenuously denied the claim but until now has maintained a stony silence on how the ordeal has affected him.

Today, in an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, Sir Martin pays tribute to his wife, Cristiana, and his family for the support they have given him over the past eight months and speaks of his ‘sadness’ at leaving WPP. And he also vows to be remembered for his entrepreneurial achievements rather than the lurid allegations that have sullied his name.

Sorrell’s new workplace is in a narrow townhouse on an exclusive street in the shadow of Buckingham Palace and, more importantly for this consummate deal-maker, a stone’s-throw from a string of high-quality restaurants where he breakfasts, lunches and has dinner with contacts.

After Sir Martin answers the door, we ascend the building in its narrow lift, awkwardly standing face to sternum. I’m reminded of some of the nicknames this diminutive tycoon – who claims to share Napoleon’s height, 5ft 6½in – has earned in the business world: Titch – ‘that was at school’, he says.

The 21st of June (or the Shortest Knight, geddit?) – ‘yeah, that’s a variant of Titch’.

Mad Dwarf – ‘it’s a variant of Titch as well’.

Odious Little Jerk – ‘it wasn’t Odious Little Jerk – it was Odious Little S***’.

As we take our seats in S4 Capital’s boardroom, Sorrell must know that a barrage of unwanted questions are coming his way. But he makes clear he’s not going to make my job easy. ‘There won’t be any tough questions – I won’t answer any tough questions,’ he says, fixing me with a steely glare.

Fighting on: Sir Martin Sorrell pictured with wife Cristiana at a gala in New York, 2009

Sir Martin, smartly dressed as ever in a suit and tie, initially sticks to his word, batting it all off with the words ‘move on, move on’.

He maintains a rigid posture behind his vast boardroom table, his hands clasped, reinforcing the message that nothing will break his resolve.

But eventually he starts to soften. ‘It’s not been easy,’ he finally admits. ‘But I’ve had a lot of support and counsel from all my family and friends – and people inside WPP.’

His family include second wife Cristiana, who is 30 years his junior, and their two-year-old daughter, Bianca.

From his first marriage he has three adult sons, all of whom work in the City, and grandchildren. How did his family deal with the allegations, I ask. ‘We talked about it,’ he says. ‘But that’s a private matter.’

Sorrell rubbishes any suggestion of marital problems.

‘That’s not a question I’m going to dignify with an answer,’ he says, adding: ‘Anybody who really knows me, knows the allegation and surrounding innuendo were fabricated.’

But he does admit that some people will believe what’s been written about him.

‘Some people look at it and believe it, and some people don’t,’ he says. ‘I think you have to be philosophical about it.’

Sorrell insists he has experienced ‘tougher moments’ in his life. This may be hard to believe. But he has had a more colourful life than most of his peers in the business world.

Brought up as an only child (a brother died in childbirth) in a Jewish household in North London, Sorrell attended Cambridge and Harvard universities before entering the world of commerce.

He flew beneath the radar in his early years, but rose to prominence after being made finance boss of advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. As he helped build it into a global giant, Sorrell became known as the ‘third Saatchi’ brother, after founders Maurice and Charles.

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At 40, Sorrell broke off on his own. He bought an obscure basket maker called Wire And Plastic Products, renamed it WPP Group and – against all odds – built it up into the largest advertising company in the world, overtaking Saatchi & Saatchi. To get there, Sorrell bought up some of the best-known companies in the advertising world, making plenty of enemies along the way. His Odious Little S*** nickname came about when WPP bought Ogilvy Group. Its founder David Ogilvy, known as the Father of Advertising, bestowed the title upon Sorrell.

Sir Martin points out that this comment was made before the two had met, and that Ogilvy – whom he later made chairman of WPP – later apologised.

Sir Martin was knighted in 2000 – when he earned his 21st June nickname from jealous industry peers – for his incredible rise in the business world. But all was not well in his personal life.

In 2005, his marriage of 33 years to Sandra, mother to his three sons, broke down and ended in a public divorce court. He was ordered to pay her a record £29 million, which included their £3.25 million Georgian townhouse in Central London.

Sorrell was back in court two years later. This time, he was suing two former colleagues who allegedly posted anonymous messages online about a short-lived relationship he had with WPP’s chief operating officer in Italy at that time.

One message was said to have described Sir Martin and the woman as ‘the mad dwarf and the nympho schizo’.

Sorrell attended Cambridge and Harvard universities before entering the world of commerce

The case was settled out of court for a reported £120,000 but, controversially, WPP shareholders were left to pick up legal fees he had accrued up to that point totalling £800,000.

Sir Martin married his second wife Cristiana, an Italian economist, in 2008. He provoked rage among WPP investors a couple of years later when it emerged that the company was paying for her travel expenses.

The controversy led to one of many run-ins between WPP’s chief executive and his shareholders.

‘My wife has made and continues to make a significant contribution to what I do,’ Sorrell argues. ‘What she does is extremely significant.’ He later agreed to start paying her expenses personally.

Sir Martin has regularly been the FTSE 100’s best-paid chief executive, taking home more than £200 million between 2012 and 2016 alone. Sorrell says he has no regrets. He points out that a large amount of his pay was actually in bonus form, meaning it was dependent on his performance. He also says contrasts between himself, a man who invested in his own company and built it up from scratch, and those brought in to manage big businesses, are not fair.

‘I was totally committed to the enterprise,’ he says. ‘I fundamentally believe that people in companies like WPP should make an investment, which I did.’

Despite animosity between himself and the board, after resigning from WPP on April 14 this year, Sorrell carried on working for the firm for a month and even secured some significant business.

‘Things had to be handled,’ he says. ‘You can’t just cut it off just like that. There were contractual negotiations going on with clients. I was involved in negotiating a major [advertising] contract.

‘The client said that the only person he was prepared to deal with in relation to the renewal was myself… that was one of the last things I did for WPP.’

Sorrell, notably relaxed now the conversation has moved on from prostitution, also grasps this opportunity to explain why he is both a good founder and a good manager. ‘There are people who are good at starting businesses, and there are people who are good at running businesses,’ he says.

‘Rarely do you find both sets of talent in one person.’

Yet around the time of the prostitution allegation, Sir Martin also faced accusations that he had been a ‘brutal and inhuman’ boss. How does he reconcile that with his claim he’s good at running businesses? ‘I’ve said before, I always like to have things done well,’ he shoots back. ‘If at any point they weren’t done well, I was concerned about that. But if things were executed well, everything was fine.’

Around the time of the prostitution allegation, Sir Martin also faced accusations that he had been a ‘brutal and inhuman’ boss

It was also reported that staff had been upset when he sacked his chauffeur of 15 years after he refused to pick up Cristiana from a restaurant at 2am because he had another job five hours later.

Despite still owning a near- two per cent stake in WPP, Sir Martin has turned into the firm’s most vocal critic since leaving: he recently described it as being a ‘car crash in slow motion’.

Sir Martin turns 74 in February, he has a young daughter and grandchildren nearby, and money is no concern for him and his family. But after leaving WPP, he chose to launch himself straight into a new job without taking a break.

‘Having gone through what I went through, I decided in May to embark on a new enterprise,’ he says. ‘A clean sheet of paper. It’s obviously not easy – because the good news is you have a clean sheet of paper, the bad news is that I obviously miss the scale of WPP.

‘But we’re starting to build a good operation… and I think it can actually be really exciting. I can’t say how far we’ll go or what we’ll do [but] I’m finding it very interesting and absorbing and challenging. There are lots of opportunities, so we’ll see how it goes.’

Sorrell says it would be ‘foolish’ to speculate on how large S4 Capital can become. But in suggesting it could one day catch up with WPP, a firm worth £11 billion, he provides a clue to his own ambitions.

He refers to S4 as a ‘speck’ in the rear view mirror of the ‘car crash’ WPP. ‘If you’re in a car crash, and you stop, the speck catches up quite quickly,’ he chortles.

Whether it’s feasible or unthinkable, there is no doubt Sir Martin would love to witness the demise of his company and then sweep in to its rescue. He feels great ‘sadness’ at having left the firm and reveals he has very personal feelings towards it. ‘WPP is a great company and it was, and still is, my baby,’ he says. ‘That’s founder’s mentality. It’s as near as a man can come to having a baby. Not physically, but emotionally.’

No matter what happens, Sir Martin is confident he will be remembered for the right reasons, rather than for a couple of months in 2018.

‘I’ve had three lives,’ he says. ‘Nine years at Saatchi, 33 years at WPP and, hopefully, five to ten years at S4 Capital. The records have, and will, speak for themselves.’ 

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