Sorrell Got a Nasty Nickname, but Was Trial Worth His Time?

Emma Hall From London

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Sir Martin Sorrell's libel trial may be finished, but there are elements of his two weeks in court that will forever cling to the WPP Group chief executive.

Emma Hall is Advertising Age's London reporter, and covered the recent libel trial in the High Court.

The "mad dwarf and nympho schizo" tag will follow Mr. Sorrell around -- and pop up on Google searches -- for years to come. During the action against Marco Benatti, the main defendant and WPP's fired country manager for Italy, Mr. Sorrell's own barrister, Desmond Browne, introduced the cruel e-mailed phrase as evidence of hostility toward Mr. Sorrell.

He may be somewhat extreme in his dedication to work, but "mad" is so far from the truth that it is meaningless in this context.

Daniela Weber, the chief operating officer of WPP Italy linked to Mr. Sorrell, is more likely to suffer repercussions from the "nympho-schizo" label because she was unknown before the libel case. The unfortunate phrase is all we have to go on.

It still seems strange that Mr. Sorrell willingly dragged his private life through the courts, exposing a personal relationship and publicizing the scurrilous blogs' image of a "Don Martino" mafioso-like figure. Even if he had won, there was seemingly little to be gained. And, even allowing for the famous BlackBerry, wouldn't his time have been better spent running the company than sitting in court?

But in the end, WPP Group's success under his leadership speaks louder than the petty gibes of Mr. Sorrell's critics.

Indeed, the positive impact of the story for Mr. Sorrell should not be overlooked. It took him out of the business pages and onto the main pages of newspapers around the world. He was almost unfailingly described as "the $200 million advertising tycoon" or "Britain's most prominent adman" or "chief executive of the $15 billion WPP Group."

In some ways, Mr. Sorrell's reputation has been boosted by the court case. This is despite the lurid details, and even allows for the fact that he backed down and accepted a settlement -- two weeks into the trial -- that had been offered before the trial even started.

Libel cases in England are very rare indeed. That's because libel damages are capped at $400,000, and the legal costs of High Court action are outrageous (and estimated at $4 million for Mr. Sorrell).

But watch for the Sorrell-Benatti rematch next year, when a trial date is set for grievances over breach of contract and an unfair dismissal.
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