Raising the bar: Martin Sorrell holds court at The Quay’s pub in Cannes
Cannes is known for its luxury hotels, glorious weather and stunning, yacht-filled harbour.
It is a hot spot for celebrities on the French Riviera, and last week pop stars Paloma Faith and Jessie Ware were in town, along with model Naomi Campbell and TV presenter Tania Bryer. They were there for the annual Cannes Lions festival, an event for the advertising and creative industries.
But for WPP-watchers, these stars were a supporting act, because Cannes Lions was this year the setting for the comeback of the ad industry’s most famous fallen idol, Sir Martin Sorrell.
The 73-year-old was making his first big public appearance since he dramatically quit WPP – a business he set up more than 30 years ago.
His departure in April was a mystery at first, but is now said to have followed allegations – vehemently denied – that he used company money to pay a prostitute and behaved despotically to staff.
‘Am I the easiest person in the world to get along with? Sometimes I can be difficult,’ Sorrell admitted, as he spoke out publicly for the first time after his defenestration.
‘But I would always say difficult with justification. And if it is a fault to demand or expect superior performance or things to go well, mea culpa.’
Sorrell was staying in the five-star Hotel Barriere Le Majestic Cannes, where rooms cost up to £3,500 a night. But he could hardly have chosen a less glamorous venue for his appearance.
While other media executives were addressing large audiences in Cannes’ plush conference centre, or plying clients with drinks aboard company yachts, Sorrell held court in an Irish pub called The Quay’s, having arrived by the back entrance to attract as little attention as possible.
Media circus: TV star Tania Bryer and model Naomi Campbell in Cannes
Less than an hour later, after giving an interview with ad industry magazine The Drum, from his perch next to the bar, Sorrell hastily headed for the back door once more and leapt into a waiting taxi.
Dressed in a grey blazer, dark polo shirt and light chinos, he appeared relaxed, if out of place, propped up in the pub decorated with rugby and Irish football memorabilia. He looked more at home on the main Cannes stage the next day. Here, he was forced to address the allegation about the prostitute, telling a packed auditorium: ‘It’s not true.’ He also dismissed other ‘scurrilous and salacious stuff thrown around’.
WPP’s board never listened to me in the last few weeks. Why would they change a habit of a lifetime?
Sorrell was more evasive on other topics. Have the City investors who committed to his new venture, S4 Capital, been put off by the accusations against him? ‘We’ll see in time,’ he told The Mail on Sunday. Is there any bad blood between himself, the WPP board and chairman Roberto Quarta?
‘You’ll have to ask them,’ he replied, though his references to his exit from WPP in terms such as like being ‘shot’ or ‘run over by a bus’ might be a clue.
Some WPP investors are frustrated that Sorrell remains in line for share payments of up to £20 million over the next five years. Shareholders are also irked that he had no ‘non-compete’ clause in his contract with the company and has therefore been able to set up a new business straight away.
Sorrell insists he is not seeking to be a rival to WPP, calling his new firm a ‘peanut’ in comparison.
On the main Cannes stage, Sorrell (left) was forced to address the allegation about the prostitute, telling a packed auditorium: ‘It’s not true’
‘I can’t believe anybody would be worried about a peanut,’ he said. ‘Though it does occur to me some people have peanut allergies.’
Sorrell suggested the WPP board should appoint Mark Read and Andrew Scott – leading the company as joint chief operating officers – as his successors, though he denied believing it would take two men to do the same job as him.
‘I’m saying those two individuals have complementary skills,’ he said. ‘One on their own would not be sufficient, in my view.’
But he acknowledged the board probably wouldn’t listen: ‘They never listened to me in the last few weeks. There’s no reason they should change the habit of a lifetime, but that would be my advice.’
Sorrell ducked other questions in public, but did hand out his email address to crowds of people, inviting them to send him queries.
The good news for his would-be inquisitors is he is known for responding fast to all of his emails at all hours of the day. This seemingly inhuman dedication to his inbox has led many to question whether it really is the man himself answering messages, rather than his staff. He dismissed this notion in Cannes, saying he has a machine-like workaholic streak: ‘I’m a robot,’ he said. ‘Just ask my wife.’