Sorrell Trades Tips on Winning With U.K. Cycling Expert

At Advertising Week Europe session, WPP CEO Says Staffers Get Harder to Manage As They Become More Powerful

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In an unusual turnaround, WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell was asking the questions rather than answering them on the opening day of the first Advertising Week Europe, which is being held in London from March 18-21.

Dave Brailsford
Dave Brailsford
Mr. Sorrell's preoccupation with winning was clear as he interviewed Dave Brailsford, performance director of the Great Britain cycling team that won 12 medals at the London 2012 Olympics, including eight gold medals.

"Can you give us some tips so that everybody in this room can be a winner?" asked Mr. Sorrell, no stranger to success himself as the head of the world's largest communications group.

Mr. Brailsford replied that advertising leaders need clarity and vision, and that they must make sure that their senior staff feel secure, are clear about their responsibilities, and are regularly told that they are doing a good job.

The session, titled "Winning!", also gave some insight into Mr. Sorrell's own working life. He said that he frequently finds himself looking at his emails and can't believe what he's read, and he identified with Mr. Brailsford's position as someone who has to find a "balance between science and art, passion and business."

Mr. Sorrell described advertising as a combination of "mathsmen and madmen" and, when Mr. Brailsford talked about dealing with the primitive "chimp" side of his cyclists, Mr. Sorrell quipped that he would know what to do "next time a creative director loses his or her marbles with me."

Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell
Talking about managing his own senior staff, Mr. Sorrell did not name any names, but admitted, "I find that when individuals become successful and powerful they become harder to manage. The better the people, the less co-operative they are."

Himself a famous micro-manager, Mr. Sorrell admired Mr. Brailsford's attention to detail, particularly his tactic of sending staff ahead of his cyclists to disinfect the handles of hotel doors in order to keep germs at bay.

He also asked Mr. Brailsford for advice on what to do when people go off the rails (the answer was to support them), and whether he had ever given up on anyone (yes, Mr. Brailsford has).

Who knows what childhood influences might have inspired some of Mr. Sorrell's questions to Mr. Brailsford, which included "How did being a middle child affect you?" and "Is your mother a dominant woman?"

He didn't ask Mr. Brailsford any salary-related questions, a sore point for Mr. Sorrell, who has been the subject of ongoing U.K. newspaper stories about shareholders being unhappy about Mr. Sorrell's remuneration.

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