WPP CEO Handily Survives Vote on $50 Million Pay Package

To Appease Shareholders, A New Five-Year Deal With More Difficult Targets Is Introduced

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Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell handily survived another shareholder vote on his $50 million pay package at the communications group's annual general meeting in London today, where 16% of votes opposed his package and another 11% abstained.

Efforts to reduce Mr. Sorrell's pay seem to be receding into the past. The vote was similar to last year. The CEO also again won a resounding personal vote of confidence with 99.81% re-electing him as a director of the company, roughly even with last year, when the proportion was 99.98%. The CEO role is not up for a vote.

Jeffrey Rosen, attending his last annual meeting as chairman of WPP's compensation committee, defended the package, arguing that the scheme was approved five years ago and it would not be fair or even legal to withdraw it at the last minute.

He said, however, that a new five-year compensation deal for Mr. Sorrell had two added components - - tied to earnings per share growth and equity return -- that would make it more difficult to achieve the maximum payout next time round.

Since returning its headquarters to London from Ireland two years ago, WPP has made the most of its location for these sessions. Last year's annual general meeting was held at the landmark Savoy Hotel, and this year the venue was the U.K. capital's newest and biggest skyscraper, The Shard.

Shareholders on hand, many of them elderly couples and small investors, gathered on a beautiful sunny day, enjoying the view from the 23rd floor and making the most of WPP's hospitality. Tea and biscuits were served beforehand, with abundant wine and sandwiches on offer after the two-and-a-half hour meeting.

There were some pointed questions from attendees. Rebecca Newsom from Share Action U.K. stood up and asked the board if it would consider adopting a living wage policy for all contractors, including cleaners and so on, and not just WPP's own direct staff. WPP Finance Director Paul Richardson said she had a good point and that he would look into it..

But the general mood of the board was more relaxed and informal than at the last two annual general meetings. Mr. Lader joked that, contrary to popular opinion, "WPP isn't 175,000 people reporting directly to an energetic fellow with a Blackberry," as he emphasized the strength of the management beyond the board.

Philip Lader, WPP's chairman, started proceedings with a business update. On a like-for-like basis, taking out acquisitions and currency fluctuations, revenue in the first five months of this year increased 7.6% from the equivalent period last year, he said.

Mr. Sorrell then took to the floor, outlining WPP's four strategic priorities: new markets, new media, big data and the application of technology, and "horizontality," where clients work with teams of WPP agencies at once.

He also talked about the erosion of regional management, a happy development in his eyes, and the increased focus on global and local decision-making, as well as the continued consolidation in the industry.

"Consolidation will continue among clients and media owners," Mr. Sorrell said, "and we intend to be very much in that game, especially in the small and medium scale" -- indicating that WPP is not interested in the idea of a mega-deals in the style of the failed Publicis-Omnicom merger.

Mr. Sorrell talked about WPP's success at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last week, where its agencies won more than the other holding companies' agencies for the fourth year in a row, an achievement WPP celebrated with a press release comparing it to winning the World Cup.

Mr. Sorrell added, however, "We are very proud of our Cannes record but we don't want to be overly boastful about it. It's like painting a ship or a bridge -- we finished it last Saturday night and now we have to start painting it all over again."

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