AdMan: Martin Sorrell, Charles Saatchi and the fall of Cannes

Advertising guru Steve Henry on Sir Martin’s package and who has the last laugh

I’m fresh back from Cannes, the global advertising festival which is really just a hideously expensive rosé-tasting session.

It was a poor show for the Brits, as it tends to be these days in everything except cricket or holding our heads high while coming last at stuff. 

We did okay in TV and not so well in cyber, which is a shame because the latter is the creative language of the future.

But the first thing to say is that Cannes shouldn’t actually be in Cannes - by which I mean the festival shouldn’t be in the town, because the town has the industry by its b*llocks and can charge  crazy amounts for drinks and hotel rooms, and also because it’s about the least original town it’s possible to have a festival in.

Every week is festival time for the long-suffering and money-grubbing arrogant bast***s who live in the town. Film stars one week, dildo manufacturers the next.
Overstay your welcome - as I did one year when the air traffic controllers were on strike - and you find yourself in a weird Groundhog Week situation where everything is repeated but in the context of another industry.
That year, it was actually the air traffic controllers who were holding a convention the following week. Although a lot of them couldn’t get in, as I couldn’t get out, because most of them were on strike.
But it’s quite good fun to be there - in among the flotsam and bedlam.
Everybody starts speaking fluent gibberish at about 2pm because they’ve been drinking since about 7pm the previous night.
On one occasion, during the period when I liked a sherbert myself, I found myself at 3am swimming nude in the harbour with a group of ne’er-do-wells.

One of the guys decided to imitate a helicopter by winding a broomstick into the back of his underpants and jumping off the raft while spinning his home-made blades. He ended up in hospital, where it was quite difficult to explain the cause of his injuries.

In Cannes you start to believe in all the stories told about the good old days, because here at least people are thinking about something other than the financial micro-management of their agencies and instead of worrying about the cost of photocopying paper, are actually blowing on a single Bellini the amount of money that could hire a young account director for a year.
Even Sir Martin Sorrell, paymaster in chief to the ad industry, and owner of a good 50% of it, was apparently tanned and relaxed at his party on an island off the coast - according to a friend of mine who went there. I wasn’t invited, although I once worked for Sir Martin.

Maybe that should be “because” rather than “although”.
That said, he’s a fascinating guy, who wields enormous power in the industry.

It’s been said that Simon Cowell’s whole career is an act of revenge and a friend of mine has a theory that Sir Martin’s career, which started as a humble financial director to the Saatchi brothers, has a similar spur. Because while Sir Martin may have started his career putting their Le Caprice bills through petty cash, he now owns a conglomerate far bigger than anything the Saatchis envisaged, even when they were both suffering from what doctors call “non-contagious megalomania” and trying to buy high-street banks.

When Sir Martin’s remuneration package came under scrutiny recently, (and it’s nice for any man over 50 when his package comes under scrutiny) he pointed out that he’d grown a company from something bought with £250,000 to one worth £10bn, so the shareholders may not be the right people to cavil and complain.
Although people who like to see reckless creative flair in the industry do sometimes feel like clearing their throats.
Anyway, at Cannes, one of the other agency honchos saw fit to say that Sir Martin should be voted off his own board (something that happened to at least one Saatchi in the past), and it does my heart good to see there’s still a few ding-dongs left in the industry.
Although, as usual, Sir Martin had the last laugh when he announced the purchase of a very desirable hot-shop called AKQA.
That’s how the holding companies work in advertising - they buy hot-shop agencies, pay the owners a large sum of money, work them through an earn-out period in which everybody is more focussed on the financial figures than on the creative work, (i.e. forgetting what made them a hot-shop in the first place), then the people on the earn-out take the second half of that phrase literally, and go and play golf on the Costa Smeralda, leaving a second tier of management with the conundrum of how to make money in an industry where the margins have been squeezed tighter than a gerbil’s testicles. And then finally, the first 20% of the revenue has to go back to the group owning you.
It’s a conundrum which many second tiers face and which leads to a great many tears along the way.
Nevertheless, the founder of AKQA, Ajaz Ahmed, announced that this wasn’t the end of AKQA, it was just the beginning.
Time will tell, but if he can continue to build his company in a creatively interesting way, which he’s done brilliantly so far, he’ll be bucking virtually every single trend since advertising began.
I suppose it depends on what you think the point of advertising is. Making money or making interesting creative work.

It’d be nice if it could be both, although the two are in more tension than a marriage between two film stars, both of whom are hiding the fact that they’re gay.

But at a festival which used to be made up of people talking about creative work, and which now just uses creative awards to “quantify” creativity like some glorified actuary’s spread-sheet, while obsessing over who’s throwing the biggest party, it feels like the baby’s got thrown out with the empty jeroboams of rosé. 



Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Mr Henry

    Your comments are terrific.

    And my tech friends tell me Decoded is the business.

    I'd be delighted to buy you a bellini one day in London not Cannes - or mineral water if you prefer.

    Luke Johnson

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  • Sorrell likes to talk about having grown WPP from £250,000 to £10bn but if you're a shareholder who bought the stock in the last few years, you really don't care about that bit of ancient history.

    What is his vision for WPP? That is not well articulated.

    Organic revenue growth is rather weak. So is the plan to continue growing through acquisition?

    WPP has over 150,000 employees and they are a marketing services business.

    Surely growth through acquisition is a recipe for disaster.

    And WPP is run by a publicity hound and megalomaniac. Haven't we read this book before?

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  • Luke - I'd love to meet up. Thanks for the kind words. Maybe a coffee in Patisserie Valerie or Baker and Spice ?

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  • Felice - you make some very interesting points. And I share your concern in wanting to know about the vision for WPP. But to accuse an adman of being a publicity hound is like accusing a banker of being fond of money ...

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