Sorrell: Geography's Easy, Tech is Harder

David Murphy

Sorrell on stage againWPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell was on stage at Ad Week Europe this morning, being questioned by Bloomberg TV anchor and editor at large, Francine Lacqua. He’s always an entertaining and forthright interviewee, though he had little to say on mobile and digital disruption this morning that we hadn’t heard before.

When asked who the big spenders of tomorrow would be, he repeated his warning to the world’s business leaders, reported here last year, that they should watch out for China.

“I don’t know what the next big thing is, but I think we underestimate the power of Chinese technology,” he said, citing the handset maker Xaoimi and eCommerce site Alibaba as just two examples of powerful Chinese companies that seem to have emerged from nowhere. Alibaba, he pointed out, is currently the 16th largest company in the world.

When asked what he is doing to cope with the increasing importance of China as a technical superpower, he told the audience that WPP has established what is now its third largest business in China, generating $1.5bn in revenues last year and employing 16,000 people, with two Chinese nationals and a leading Chinese Venture Capitalist on the board.

Geography, Sorrell said, is one of the two key drivers of WPP’s growth, the other being tech, admitting as he did so that geography is the easier of the two to figure out. “The tech bucket is very difficult; I’m not bright enough to figure out what’s going to happen technologically,” he said, before noting that when Google CEO Eric Schmidt was recently asked what or who he feared most, he first said Amazon before checking himself and saying actually it’s the garage startup.

“So even those people who are meant to be at the top of the pyramid in tech admit that it’s the potential disruptive changes that are the biggest issue…What worries me, what keeps me awake is the paranoia or fear… that something will happen that will disrupt the established approach,” Sorrell said.

He qualified the statement by adding that 25 per cent of WPP’s business is established, 75 per cent is new, through organic experimentation and investment in disruptive businesses like AppNexus and Vice.

Lacqua concluded by asking Sorrell to sum up what business is in one word. His answer: “fun. I wouldn’t be doing this unless it was fun,” he said. “It’s more interesting today than it has ever been. If you watch Bloomberg or watch the FT, we will be involved in a very significant proportion of those stores in one way shape or form.”

One final question from the audience invited Sorrell to predict the outcome of the upcoming UK general election, and to the surprise of some in the room, he rose to the bait, answering: “I have a sneaking feeling that Ed and Alex will forge an alliance. But I wouldn’t put money on it.”