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WPP part II – starring Sir Martin Sorrell

Little Fockers, Jaws: The Revenge, Porky’s II. If life has taught Jemima Finch* anything, it’s that sequels can suck.

But for every flop Sex and the City reboot there’s a Star Wars triumph. So as adland mogul Sir Martin Sorrell prepares for re-entry, the industry is hotly anticipating the sequel (catchily entitled S4 Capital) – and how it will fare at the box office.

The short answer is that you’d never bet against Sir Martin. The man moulded a wire basket maker into the world’s biggest advertising group; he has the contacts and the know-how to shortcut his way to success.

But there’s a long answer too.

*A sidebar. I recently appeared on Jazz FM’s Business Breakfast show to opine on the very topics of Sir Martin and the changing agency landscape. I’d like to think that I was a good pick to expound on such matters, but someone called Jemima Finch got all the credit.

Bruised ego aside, I’m fascinated to see what S4 Capital will be. Not only has Sir Martin got a tremendous business brain, he’s allowing five years for maturation and has put up £40m of his own dosh. It sounds like it can’t fail. But so did Highlander 2, and Connery and co learned the hard way that an all-star cast and big budget aren’t worth squat if the audience has moved on.

If Sir Martin’s sequel is just WPP take two, I see trouble ahead.

For me, the relationship between brands and agencies will continue to change as we veer towards a model that’s convenience and opportunism more than it is structure and tradition. With unprecedented micro-spending flowing into Facebook, Google, myriad digital channels and new technologies, the goalposts are perpetually shifting.

But more than changing distribution, evolving client attitudes are fusing with a brew of cultural shifts; and it’s all putting pressure on the monoliths.

None of this is news to WPP. In February the company noted its worst stock drop-off since 1999, and poorest growth performance since 2009. Sir Martin himself called 2017 “advertising’s worst year in a decade.”

It’s different this time,” he said, “the marketplace has changed.”

And so it has. Agency budgets are thinning as mandates around control, transparency and margin are being championed by a new breed of activist investors. Even FTSE brands are moving towards little-and-often, on-demand, pinpoint spending; serving customers in brand-safe, social environments.

Conglomerates just don’t seem to be in-vogue. In 2018 Marc Pritchard, brand chief at P&G – a long-time WPP client – told an industry conference that “it’s time to disrupt this archaic Mad Men model.”

Facing that kind of backlash, WPP – and rivals such as Dentsu and Publicis – have had to work hard to reassure shareholders they’re on it. Sir Martin moved immediately to modernise: tightening WPP’s structure and improving client journeys within the corporate family; lessening waste and ensuring costs don’t spill out the sides.

When I read these reports back in February, I felt just a little bit smug (steady Jemima Finch). Dipping performance, change and restructuring within the WPPs of this world served to highlight the raison d’etre of Hello Finch. And indeed other indie agency collectives.

A recent Drum piece reported that Paul Hammersley, formerly of DDB and Lowe New York, is seeing a “growing hunger” for the indie agencies of his Harbour Collective stable. As with Hello Finch, there’s benefits on all sides when indie agencies can compete against industry titans by pooling complementary skills and working as one when required.

A point my alter ego made on Jazz FM’s Business Breakfast is that the landscape is changing, and simply recreating WPP seems a backwards move. Tomorrow’s buyers crave something more fluid and perhaps even informal. For me, a lot of that is to do with the march of millennials. Not only do they have tomorrow’s spend power (thus they comprise the holy grail demographic in the crosshairs of every advertiser), millennials themselves are moving en masse into decision-making roles at brands and in boardrooms.

It’s my opinion that they’ll continue to champion staples of the gig economy – on-demand, nownership, choice, collaboration and sharing – on which they’ve been reared.

So we can expect clients to continue to question the transparency and efficiency of the status quo. I can foresee brands rejecting big retainers for something more fluid. We’re already seeing mass migration to no-strings specialists whose skills trump the agency generalists, and we’re already in a little-and-often world of low-spend, quick turnaround and experimentation.

I suspect corporate agencies will prove too brittle to bend. It barely needs saying, but if Sir Martin wants to revisit the structures and principles that worked in 1989, S4 Capital may stutter. As I see it, gig-economy thinking is permeating adland relationships, mechanisms and norms – and that’s not going to stop.

So I’m very much looking forward to seeing a Sir Martin Sorrell agency product that mirrors and competes with Hello Finch, if it does I’ll know we’re both on the right track. If he reverts to type then I see this:

One man, obsessed with the past, tries to take society back in time …

Is that doomed B-movie sequel enough for you? Written and directed by Jemima Finch.

Sir Martin Sorell

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