The thorny problem of succession for Publicis and WPP
The thorny problem of succession for Publicis and WPP
There’s no doubt that, in the world of marcomms, there’s one pretty unique alpha male, and that’s Sir Martin Sorrell. Over the past decade or more, the WPP boss has been the media’s go-to man when reporters are looking for an overview of the industry, or a wider view on the economy (creative or not) as a whole.

It came as no surprise that when the BBC was looking for an adman’s perspective on Brexit, Sir Martin was the man they looked up. He’s high profile, one of the UK’s most famous businessmen and is sharp and articulate.

Creatives, from young digital turks to veterans of the Mad Men CDP era, might gnash their teeth at the fact that a suit – and what’s worse, a suit who used to be a finance director – has become the de facto spokesman for the industry. But the fact is, there’s nobody else with Sir Martin’s gravitas or track record – whether you think that track record is good, bad or indifferent.

Actually, there is one person who could be regarded as Sorrell’s peer, his equal. Someone who, like him, has built up a vast empire from a small base; someone who relishes a big, headline-grabbing business deal; someone with a forceful personality and a taste for spotlight.

That person is of course Maurice Lévy, Sorrell’s great rival and sparring partner, and head of the third's second-biggest marcomms group, Publicis.

Having spent the best part of three decades building vast empires in their own image, both men and both businesses face a similar problem: that of succession. While these septuagenarians constantly amaze us with their energy, commitment to their businesses and their willingness to do a dramatic deal, both will at some point find their energy lagging, and the time will come to step back and bow out.

In both cases, the successor (or successors) will have a hard job – to hold together diverse and sprawling companies, keep shareholders happy and to grow moving forward. The problem for both WPP and Publicis is the lack of a named successor, which always makes stockholders quite jittery.

One suspects that both men would want to choose and publicly anoint their successors, but neither has given any clear signal as to who their chosen heirs might be.

In some ways, Lévy’s problem is more acute: not just because he’s slightly older (74 to Sorrell’s 71), but also because he’s hinted that he will step down soon (in May next year). Sorrell, on the other hand, has made no such statement, the implication being that he’s going to stick around for quite some time – although we should remember that in May, WPP chairman Roberto Quarta stated that the search for the next Sir Martin had begun.

Industry watchers have put forward a number of names for that job, such as the charismatic adman Johnny Hornby (WPP owns 49 per cent of Hornby’s agency CHI); WPP lifer Mark Read; Dentsu Aegis Network chief executive Jerry Buhlmann; ITV boss Adam Crozier and even Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed. James Murphy, co-founder of adam&eve (now owned by Omnicom as adam&eveDDB) is perhaps a fanciful thought, and fellow Omnicom man and Brit, BBDO boss Andrew Robertson, has also been mentioned.

In July, as it announced its Q2 numbers, Publicis also said that Lévy’s successor would be named in February 2017 – so at least a roadmap’s in place. But who could it be?

In his July presentation to analysts, Lévy said that the Groupe was "for the time being… working only on internal candidates". One internal candidate could have been worldwide Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts, but he famously blotted his copybook in July after a sexism row and stepped down just last month.

Another candidate, and according to some Maurice-watchers, the only candidate, is Arthur Sadoun, who was elevated to chief executive of the Publicis Worldwide network in mid-2013, and put in charge of all the creative networks (Publicis, Saatchis and Leo Burnett) as CEO of the new Publicis Communications in a major re-organisation at the end of 2015, following the fallout from the failed merger with Omnicom. Sadoun is being tried in key roles, and despite being a bit of an unknown – even within the industry – he’s said to be the runaway favourite. He certainly has a lot going for him: he’s just 45, started his own agency (which he sold to BBDO), is strong in digital – important for Lévy – and has a good track record in new business.

Other internal candidates could include the impressive Steve King, chief executive of Publicis Media, whose brands include media giants ZenithOptimedia, VivaKi and Starcom Mediavest; the irrepressible Robert Senior, the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, a man who most certainly has the energy and drive; or perhaps 51-year-old Laura Desmond, Publicis Groupe’s new chief revenue officer and former boss at Starcom.

Alan Herrick, currently the chief executive of Publicis.Sapient, the Groupe’s digital and consulting arm, is another interesting thought. Given this part of the business is the part which seems to me to have the brightest and best future, and that it has evolved from such world-class brands as Sapient, DigitasLBi and Razorfish, he must have his backers.

Sadoun will probably win out. Apparently his relationship with Lévy is warm, and the two are thought to admire and respect each other. I’ve seen Sadoun speak, and he does have the charisma that heading a global network requires and he is part of a French glamour couple (he’s married to TV presenter Anne-Sophie Lapix).

If he is named successor, Sadoun may be partnered by Jean-Michel Etienne, Publicis’ top finance man; he has vast experience and could mentor the much younger Sadoun. Another who could fulfil the same role is Stephan Beringer, who heads up the digitally-focussed VivaKi operation.

We shall hopefully know all in a few months’ time, but there probably won’t be time to pause for breath – not only will speculation continue about the succession plan at WPP, but Omnicom’s CEO John Wren (64) and IPG’s Michael Roth (70) have their equivalent circumstances. Soon there will be a whole new generation helming the big four holding groups. But that’s something for another day.

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