Sir Martin Sorrell’s shock weekend departure as the head of WPP sent the advertising giant’s share price sliding down 4% upon opening, as traders digest the implications of what the leadership uncertainty might bring – although it has since rebounded slightly.
So unexpected was the departure that WPP reportedly does not even have a non-compete agreement in place with Sorrell, leaving him entirely free to set up a competing business should he wish to do so, according to the FT.
Sorrell unexpectedly threw in the towel on Saturday evening in the wake of an investigation into allegations of misconduct, abruptly ending a glittering 33 year at its helm, during which time he built the business into the world’s largest advertising agency.
Sorrell’s shoes are being filled by WPP Digital chief executive Mark Read and Andrew Scott, chief operating officer for Europe, on an interim basis as joint chief operating officers, but the multinational company could cast its net wider for a permanent successor.
Sky’s Jeremy Darroch and Andrew Robertson, chief executive of ad agency BBDO, are among those in the frame but any succession could be at least six months away, exposing WPP to an extended period of volatility.
Keith Hunt managing partner, Results International, said: “There are a range of options to replace Sir Martin Sorrell, but each with its own difficulties. Any internal candidate would have to demonstrate a mastery of all the different areas of the business and be recognised for that – no simple feat. Interim COO is one thing, actual replacement CEO is another quite different challenge.
“And externally within the industry more broadly, you’d be hard pushed to find someone with the relevant experience who would win acceptance. Publicis went through a similar process to replace Maurice Levy recently and that turned out to be reasonably bloody. There is no way on earth that WPP would want to look at that short list of candidates and in essence pick someone to replace Sir Martin who was rejected by Publicis! Such is the intensity of competition between the big networks that it’s unlikely Sorrell’s successor would come from that world.”
Paul Bainsfair, director general of the Institute of Practisioners in Advertising, added: "There's no doubt about it, Sir Martin was a game changer. One of a kind, a tour de force with unequalled achievements. Respected and sometimes feared by all sides.
“He has been at the helm for so long it's hard to believe he'll no longer being occupying this position. It's an understatement to say he will be a hard act to follow."
Read has confirmed to The Drum that his senior management within Wunderman will step up to cover for him as global chief exec of the agency – so no changes will be made in his role at this point.
More from The Drum's complete coverage of Sir Martin Sorrell's exit: