The networker: Martin Sorrell of WPP

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When chief executives meet in Sir Martin Sorrell’s absence, they sometimes deliberately email him simultaneously to test how quickly he replies and to whom. The chief executive of WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency by revenue, is rarely offline, whether at a private dinner, a conference or a board meeting, his thumbs flashing terse replies back to contacts, colleagues, customers and the media. His rapid reaction time is legendary, triggering the occasional rumour (which Sorrell denies) that he has a team of assistants responding under his name. Philip Lader, WPP’s chairman and former US ambassador to Britain, recalls sitting behind Sorrell at the Wimbledon finals. When the match was over, Lader’s wife whispered: “Did he ever look up from the BlackBerry?” These days, the response is as likely to come from his iPhone 6. But while Sorrell says he still loves his two BlackBerrys (one on a US network, one on a British network), he also carries something much more precious: a “letter of wishes” from his father, Jack, dated a year before his death in 1989. “It’s a very deep letter,” says Sorrell, one which contains the message that “no matter how dark the clouds are, [you must] have no fear.” That advice has stood Sorrell in good stead. Through a combination of prolific dealmaking, relentless communication, near-constant travel and tireless promotion of himself and his company, Sorrell has turned a small maker of wire baskets — Wire & Plastic Products — into a vast marketing, media and communications conglomerate, with a stock market valuation of more than £20bn. After 30 years, WPP now embraces some of the best-known names in marketing, advertising and public relations, including Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson and Burson-Marsteller. In the process, Sorrell has become one of the best-connected executives in the world. The ­epitome of “Davos Man”, he is ready with a question from the floor or a quip from the podium wherever magnates gather, from Allen & Co’s media summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, to the Cannes Lions festival, advertising’s equivalent of the Oscars. Sorrell has won the sometimes reluctant respect of rivals and the admiration of peers for turning advertising and marketing from a creative cottage industry into an efficient and global money machine. But Sorrell attracts dark clouds, too. Last year, Maurice Lévy, 73, the silver-haired CEO of Publicis, WPP’s French rival, said that he would not miss Sorrell when he retired. Sorrell retorted that Lévy was “the Freddy Krueger of advertising” — a reference to the indestructible serial killer in A Nightmare on Elm Street — and would never step down. While the Krueger jibe was typical of Sorrell’s sharp-tongued style, it was a strange comparison to make, because it could easily be applied to Sorrell himself. The WPP chief executive turned 70 on Valentine’s Day and everyone agrees he is likely to cling to his position, even if it means dying in harness. Mark Sorrell, the eldest of his three sons from his first marriage, jokes that his father will eventually be the man in seat 1A who does not get off the British Airways flight from New York. How long does Sorrell himself think he can continue?

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