Advertising Week

At Advertising Week, Sorrell Catches Us Up on WPP Companies

Style Site Refinery29 Plans Expansion in Europe and China

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In his second Advertising Week appearance of the day, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell presided over a panel on Wednesday afternoon that wouldn't have been out of place at a WPP new business pitch.

Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell Credit: Dario Pignatelli, Bloomberg

The group included Alex da Kid, a songwriter and producer who announced a joint venture with WPP at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in June to bring music to brands, and George Pyne, founder of Bruin Sports Capital, a sports marketing startup in which WPP led a $250 million round of funding in January. Jonathan M. Perelman recently moved from Buzzfeed, which signed an advertising partnership with WPP in August, to talent agency ICM Partners, where he is head of digital.

During the panel, Mr. Sorrell encouraged Justin Stefano, co-founder and co-CEO of Refinery29, a style website popular with female millennials that WPP invested in six months ago, to talk about Refinery29's global expansion. Mr. Stefano said Refinery29 will enter Europe in November, and be in London, Paris and Germany by February 2016, followed by Asia, starting with China.

"Our entry into China will likely happen without a website, through chat apps," he said.

A Chinese student in the audience asked Mr. Stefano what Refinery29's competitive advantage would be against a similar Chinese venture focused on fashion and pop culture.

"We're still in the process of determining that," he said. "There are cultural differences, and we'll have to partner with a local media company. Focusing on the fashion luxury space in China and Asia as the entry point is going to be key."

Mr. Sorrell said that the real competition in China for multinational marketers isn't other multinationals but local companies.

"Western brands have great loyalty in China but brand awareness and distribution is low," he said. "Chinese brands are trying to get loyalty, and multinational brands are trying to get awareness and distribution."

Those are areas where Refinery29 can help, he said.

He and Mr. Stefano joked about an earlier misunderstanding when the WPP CEO asked about Refinery29's strategy for "centennials." He meant females born after 1997, but Mr. Stefano thought he was referring to women approaching the age of 100. That gave Mr. Sorrell, who often trades digs with rival Publicis Group chairman-CEO Maurice Levy, the opportunity to comment that with advances in healthcare leading to longer lives, "Maurice Levy will be here when he's 140 years old."

Mr. Levy, usually a visible presence at Advertising Week, wasn't a speaker this year. He devoted part of his session at last year's event to telling a story about the first time he met Mr. Sorrell, back in 1980. Mr. Levy told the Advertising Week audience that he jokes about WPP's CEO "because Martin likes that and he'd be disappointed if I didn't do it."