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Opinion: Will Sorrell's exit help creativity regain center stage?

By Published on .

Martin Sorrell speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.
Martin Sorrell speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Credit: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg

Was it just me who was shocked by the relative whimper with which one of the advertising history's most tenacious fighters, Sir Martin Sorrell, left the business?

The former WPP founder and chief (still sounds weird to say "former") is one of the toughest-minded individuals I've ever met.

One school of thought is that Sir M must have done something very naughty. Again, I find that impossible to believe.

What seems to me a far simpler reason for his departure, and one ably supported by the grim reality of ever-decreasing big ad agency profits, is that Sorrell could see no foolproof and immediate way through.

Trouble is, I believe that this reality is one of Sir Martin Sorrell's own making.

While revolutionizing ad agency profits, he did so at the expense of the "high-end" creativity that was the one single thing that made ad agencies special and different from anything else marketers could get anywhere else.

By high-end creativity, I mean the unquantifiable, hard-to-handle, bohemian elements of creativity that are like inoperable tumors from a cost standpoint; a brilliant creative mind is inevitably packed with eccentricities that simply cannot be excised without dulling the brilliance.

For Sorrell, the former chief financial officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, the above meant Charles Saatchi and Paul Arden, two of the most the uncompromising creative leaders in ad agency history.

One can only imagine the "excesses" Sorrell witnessed in those days. Though the brilliant creative output of Arden's Saatchi—among the consistently finest in ad agency history—clearly didn't enter in to Sorrell's ongoing scheme of things.

Instead, a clearly identifiable snarl often crossed Sorrell's lips whenever he mentioned "creatives." More recently he frequently lumped what he called traditional, inspirational creativity under the name "Don Draper," the snarl then hidden just beneath the surface.

For many, this writer included, the financially-led assault on so-called "creative excesses" has led to innumerable babies being cast into oblivion along with the bathwater.

As finance chief at Saatchi & Saatchi, the then plain old Martin Sorrell must have salivated at the prospect of getting his hands on an ad network of his own and cutting out the soft creative underbelly.

Largely following his inspiration, Madison Avenue has failed to achieve anything like a proper balance between fiscal strength and responsibility and creative brilliance, coming down firmly on the side of the former.

The latter has invariably been the whipping boy with advertising holding companies increasingly coming to resemble the very corporations they serve.

The digital era has further emboldened all to gravitate toward the enumerable as opposed to the inspirational.

The schoolkid error has been to misunderstand a critical fact: When ad agencies join in with reducing everything to numbers and data and bits and bytes, they forfeit the very alchemical difference marketers are seeking—and will increasingly seek when digital settles in to its rightful place as a wonderful tool, but nothing but a tool.

In order for current and future marketers to succeed, they will increasingly seek emotionally intelligent partners, while coralling numbers and data becomes table stakes.

They'll increasingly seek access to the unquantifiable—creativity, intuition, experience—the very things that curl Sir Martin Sorrell's lip.

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