Sir Martin Sorrell has never been short on opinions, building a reputation during his decades working in the advertising world where he built WPP into what at one point was the biggest ad agency holding company on the planet with billions of dollars in billings. Today Sorrell, 75, is immersed in the world of digital and when he sat down on the latest episode of iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman’s podcast Math & Magic: Stories From the Frontiers of Marketing, the question of podcasting came up. In typical Sorrell fashion, he pulled no punches with his host.
Sorrell said he views podcasting as “important, but not mainstream” quite yet. “It’s another good way of our clients developing their media programming and another good way to engage consumers. Whether it becomes mainstream or not is another question,” he said. “It’s a bit like influencer marketing in terms of content. I see influencers being a subset of content and development of the creation of content.”
Sorrell said he started to see technology taking a larger role in the mid-1990s, and by the time he left WPP two years ago it was “very difficult” to calculate the share of what the digital business had become at the ad conglomerate, which is the parent to such media buying shops as GroupM and Mindshare. “On the web, you always underestimate the speed at which this is going to change and if I have regrets it would be that we didn’t move further, faster at WPP to adapt to the technological development,” said Sorrell.
Changing from analog to digital may be “exceptionally difficult,” according to Sorrell, but the impact on the ad world has become even more existential. He said the big ad holding companies like WPP are “not fit for purpose anymore,” telling Pittman, “The market has changed; they’re past their sell-by dates — I think there should be deconsolidation now.”
Since leaving WPP in 2018, Sorrell has been focused on his new company — S4 Capital — a digital advertising and marketing services company that he says is focused on the digital “holy trinity” of digital content, programmatic ad delivery, and first-party data. “I’m hesitant to lay out specifics what I think is possible — nothing is impossible,” said Sorrell.
But he said underlying much of what they do is a better understanding of the digital ecosystem from Google and Amazon to iHeartRadio and Samsung. “The balance is changing between the platforms, the hardware companies, and the software companies,” said Sorrell. He said S4 Capital isn’t interested in acquiring companies that want to “sell out” but rather “buy in” to a “new age” advertising and marketing services model. “There’s a missionary zeal here to disrupt the model,” he said.
As someone who credits lessons he learned from ad greats like David Ogilvy and the Saatchi brothers, Sorrell told Pittman his best teacher was his own father, who ran a chain of 750 radio and electric stores in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s. “My father made it possible for me to have an education that he didn’t and he valued it extremely highly and laid a path out for me,” said Sorrell, who later in life said his dad offered him guidance as he considered deals in the highest echelons of the advertising world. “He knew nothing about the business, but he knew people — maybe the fact that he had been a salesman and dealt with people — but he had a remarkable facility to understand people, their emotions, objections and likes and dislikes.”
Listen to the full episode of Math & Magic HERE.