Sir Martin Sorrell.

Entrepreneurship Q&A

17 March 2022

The article at a glance

Owner-manager firms are much better because one’s own money is at stake, advertising head Sir Martin Sorrell tells students at an event organised by the King’s Entrepreneurship Lab led by Kamiar Mohaddes and Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School. 

Owner-manager firms are much better because one’s own money is at stake, advertising head Sir Martin Sorrell tells students at an event organised by the King’s Entrepreneurship Lab led by Dr Kamiar Mohaddes and Dr Thomas Roulet of Cambridge Judge Business School. 

Kamiar Mohaddes.
Kamiar Mohaddes

University of Cambridge graduate Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder of S4 Capital and WPP (the world’s largest advertising and PR group) has been talking to students at an event organised by the King’s Entrepreneurship Lab, led by Dr Kamiar Mohaddes, Associate Professor in Economics and Policy and Dr Thomas Roulet, Associate Professor in Organisation Theory at Cambridge Judge Business School.

In the marketing Q&A session chaired by Sheryl Cuisia, the King’s E-Lab Entrepreneur in Residence, where Kamiar and Thomas are Co-Directors, Sir Martin recalled the advice his father gave him when he was starting out in the 1970s: “Find an industry that you enjoy. Then find a company within that industry you enjoy. Then build a reputation within it, not external but internal. And then if you fancy doing something on your own … do it.”  

Thomas Roulet.
Thomas Roulet

Sir Martin has certainly made a career of doing something on his own. After a spell consulting and becoming Group Financial Director of Saatchi & Saatchi, he was CEO of WPP for 33 years, building it from a £1 million “shell” company in 1985 into the world’s largest advertising and marketing services company, both by revenue and the number of staff. In 2018 he founded S4 Capital, a digital advertising and marketing services business for multinational influencer brands. Clients include Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Its aim is to disrupt the traditional models of millennial brands, and speaking to students at the King’s College Entrepreneurship Lab on 21 February, the 77-year-old was swift to bat away the observation that he was doing this despite not being a millennial himself.

What mattered, he said, was that there was a clear model. At S4 Capital, data drives the creation of content, which is then distributed through digital media, planning, and buying, in a continuous loop. Rather than globalisation, the focus is purely on technology. Whereas WPP is in 113 countries, S4 currently works in 33 countries, and Sir Martin doubts if it will expand to many more than that.

“The word ‘entrepreneur’ means risk taker. Not taking a risk with other people’s money, taking a risk with your own money.”

The challenge of increased corporate governance and regulatory requirements facing big businesses was also covered, and he described S4 Capital as a private equity company in a listed guise. In his eyes, owner-manager companies are much better. “I think you get up in the morning in a very different way if you have something at stake.” The firm currently has a £2.7 billion market cap, and around half of that is in the hands of management – thus, people are “putting money where their mouth is.” He told students the rise of private equity and shorter-term focus means they will not be as bound as he was to use listed markets with the associated regulatory compliance. He does not see the more sophisticated procedures as wrong but recognises the constraints it places on businesses.

Career advice

When it comes to career choices, Sir Martin said people now “think in very bite-sized chunks of time, they don’t think as my dad thought of his life over 40 years.” The need to learn coding and Mandarin should be “taken as read.” After attending Harvard Business School, Sir Martin worked in America, but said that if he were making the decision now he would go to China, India, or Brazil, and would also be tempted by opportunities in Argentina.

Quick-fire Q&A

What’s the worst piece of criticism you’ve ever received?

“That I’m a micro manager, which I believe is a positive not a negative. I’m interested in everything. Not because you necessarily want to influence everything, but because you want to understand what’s going on. The reality is: entrepreneurial people are like that.”

How do you unwind?

“I don’t, it’s very simple. I’m full on all the time. There is no boundary between work and play. I go back to my father’s advice, you do it because it is fun.”