Martin Sorrell is answerable to shareholders, at least in theory. But WPP's chief executive has unquestionably earned his reputation as the Si Newhouse of the advertising world: If Martin wants it, Martin gets it. It's the reason the smart money was on him from day one during the negotiations in 2000 over Young & Rubicam, and stayed on him even when that deal appeared in danger of collapse. And it's the reason the smart money was on him all the way in the Grey auction, and why WPP's $1.5 billion acquisition of Ed Meyer's closely held cookie jar ultimately felt anti-climactic.
Of course, it didn't hurt that WPP's most serious rivals decided from the start-or, in the case of Publicis, were told-to sit out. That left Martin in competition with Havless, er, Havas, which would have had to stretch to do a deal, and a financial group that never seemed to make sense, except as a tool to drive the price up. From the get-go it was clear Grey should go to a strategic buyer; any other move would have been a mistake, and it's unlikely key client Procter & Gamble would've tolerated a year of uncertainty waiting for the new owner to break the company into pieces and sell them again.
Martin gets his way not only because he's willing to pay a premium, although he's been known to do that. He also outwits and out-strategizes competitors, using every weapon available, including psychological warfare. (He and John Wren have completely contrary management styles and growth strategies, but are clearly the top dogs in the business today.)
Ironically, the British ad dynamo's continued rise to dominance and highly personal battles against French rivals Publicis and Havas are capturing headlines even as the industry gathers this week to celebrate itself in New York City, which, while still home to many ad-agency networks and media outfits, is arguably no longer the center of the marketing universe.
Of the top five agency holding companies, only two are U.S.-based. Marketers, of course, are headquartered all over the globe. Their worlds don't revolve around New York City. They don't revolve around advertising, either, in the traditional, paid-media definition of the word, making Advertising Week something of a misnomer for this week's celebration. Though it's admittedly catchier than Marketing Week in the World.
The sprawling, perhaps overly ambitious festival had its roots in the desire of big New York creative shops to: a) continue to prove their worth to clients; b) polish the industry's image with consumers; c) attract younger talent; and d) restore confidence to a business battered by recession and beset by long-term challenges.
It evolved into a broader concept that includes events touching on marketing in all its guises. Advertising Week was modeled on Fashion Week but its goals are more loosely defined-and self-congratulatory-and its form less centralized, making the link tenuous.
The centerpiece of Advertising Week is a march of icons such as Mr. Clean. If the ad industry really wanted an icon to represent the relevance and excitement of its craft in the year 2004, it should have asked Mr. Sorrell (who, by the way, doesn't plan to be near New York next week) to lead the parade.