Martin Sorrell Is 'Castaway' on BBC's Desert Island Discs

On Radio Show, WPP CEO Talks About Personal Life and Favorite Records

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WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell shared his favorite songs, and his struggle to balance career, family and society when he appeared on the BBC's Desert Island Discs, a U.K. Sunday morning radio institution since 1942.

Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell

The founder of the world's biggest advertising group, who usually confines his interviews to business talk, opened up about his personal life on the 45-minute BBC Radio Four show. The show's premise is that the interviewee is about to become a castaway on a desert island who gets to take with him eight favorite records, which are played during the program as he discusses his own life.

Mr. Sorrell revealed that he was born just one year after an older brother, Michael, had died at birth. "Being an only child and the last chance, I was probably overindulged," he said, "my mother and father sacrificed a lot for me because of their own lack of opportunities."

His mother, he said, was an "impossible Jewish mother. She would ceaselessly remind people about me in that way that Jewish mothers and grandmothers continually attempt to outdo other mothers and grandmothers."

He also talked about his close relationship with his father, whom he spoke with three or four times a day until his death in 1989 at the age of 75. Mr. Sorrell said that he tried to foster the same close relationship with his own three sons, but admitted, "It's much more difficult because I've gone through a divorce. I think it's a very difficult situation and it does mark people psychologically."

As a student at Cambridge University, Mr. Sorrell and a friend travelled in 1964 to a Democratic convention in Atlantic City and to a rally in Washington. "We met Bobby Kennedy and the Kennedy family," he recalled. "It was amazing because it was one year after JFK's assassination. Lyndon Johnson came down to the convention floor, which is unusual for a sitting president. My friend and I managed to avoid the security sweep and be on the podium."

The trip to the U.S. also resulted in a less happy adventure. Then 19, Mr. Sorrell had a serious car crash, suffering facial injuries -- including a severed artery -- that required hospitalization.

Still, Mr. Sorrell later returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard Business School, but said that his mother thought that Harvard changed him for the worse. "Maybe it made me a little bit too business-focused," he admitted. "It's a hothouse. You're like a greyhound in a trap. They open the trap and you think you can change the world and you can't change the world."

Harvard, he said stressed the importance of balancing family, career and society, but he admitted, "In my case I've imbalanced my life at various stages and probably emphasized career more than family. It's extremely difficult. You lose sight often of that balance. In the first 18 months of WPP, we did 18 acquisitions."

Mr. Sorrell, 65, also talked about retirement. He said, "Life expectancy has changed, so we all have to adjust to the way we think about these things." He said he thinks of himself as a late starter, launching WPP at age 40 after almost a decade at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he was group finance director.

Asked about remuneration and how he justified his $6 million pay package, Mr. Sorrell denied that pay has anything to do with corporate responsibility. "Pay differentials are a different area," he said. "We started with one room and two people. We are now a significant economic force. If you do well you get rewarded for it."

In addition to his eight favorite records, the Desert Island Discs castaway gets to choose a book and one luxury to take with him. Mr. Sorrell chose the Talmud. For his luxury, he asked for an iPad and then a Blackberry. Told electronic equipment isn't allowed, he settled for a cricket bat and ball.

Mr. Sorrell admitted that he wouldn't survive long as a castaway. "I'm absolutely hopeless," he said, "I can't even change a lightbulb."

His record choices:

  1. Chet Baker's "My Funny Valentine"
  2. Astrud Gilberto's "Corcovado"
  3. Gracie Fields' "Sally"
  4. John Williams' "Schindler's List"
  5. The Beatles' "Fool on the Hill"
  6. Giacomo Puccini's "Ai Tuoi Piedi"
  7. Sting's "Englishman in New York"
  8. George Frideric Handel's "Sarabande"

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