Martin Sorrell's sudden exit from WPP

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Credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Many details remain unclear, but Martin Sorrell's departure from the marketing giant that he built over decades arrived abruptly, coming just 11 days after WPP confirmed that it was looking into an unspecified allegation against him.

Tuesday, April 3: WPP confirms an investigation into its CEO

"The Board of WPP has appointed independent counsel to conduct an investigation in response to an allegation of personal misconduct against Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive Officer of WPP," the world's largest agency holding company says in a statement, confirming a report by The Wall Street Journal. "The investigation is ongoing. The allegations do not involve amounts which are material to WPP."

In a statement issued through a communications consultancy working for Sorrell in a "personal capacity," Sorrell describes the allegation as "financial impropriety by me, specifically as to the use of company funds."

"I reject the allegation unreservedly," he says, "but recognize that the company has to investigate it."

Sorrell is an iconic leader for the agency giant, having built it from a stake in Wire and Plastic Products, a British maker of baskets and household wares, starting in 1985.

Wednesday, April 4: One question is answered, but more remain

A person familiar with the matter says the various mentions of alleged "personal misconduct" and "financial impropriety" in statements by WPP and Sorrell referred to the same thing. The agency giant is looking into an allegation of personal misconduct "which may have some minor financial implications," the person says.

But there's no specific rule to calculate whether something is "material." A financially small misdeed could sow doubt about an executive's fitness to lead, according to John Coffee, Jr., the director of the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School.

Saturday, April 14: Sorrell steps down

WPP says Sorrell has stepped down as CEO following an internal investigation into still-unspecified misconduct, ending a 33-year career at the world's largest agency holding company.

In a note to employees, Sorrell casts his exit as a voluntary decision to help the company. "As I look ahead, I see that the current disruption we are experiencing is simply putting too much unnecessary pressure on the business, our over 200,000 people and their 500,000 or so dependents, and the clients we serve in 112 countries," he says. "That is why I have decided that in your interest, in the interest of our clients, in the interest of all shareowners, both big and small, and in the interest of all our other stakeholders, it is best for me to step aside."

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