Sir Martin Sorrell’s sensational departure from the advertising giant he founded has drawn a line under the career of one of Britain’s best-known and best-paid businessmen. But those involved with the company are likely to be scratching their heads this morning as to what he is alleged to have done.
WPP announced at 10.15pm on Saturday that its chief executive was stepping down with immediate effect, with Sorrell releasing an emotional statement to staff saying that over the last 33 years he had ‘spent every single day thinking about the future of WPP’.
The company said that he will be allowed to hold on to share awards of £33 million that will pay out over the next five years if the company performs well.
Sir Martin Sorrell with his wife Cristiana Falcone Sorrell
Sorrell’s prognostications on the business climate have long been sought after, and his vast pay and colourful private life have kept him in the headlines for two decades.
But the company and the chief executive declined to spell out what he was accused of last night.
WPP said that the ‘previously announced investigation into an allegation of misconduct against Sir Martin has concluded’ but did not elaborate on what it had found.
Sorrell’s 500-word statement did not refer to the allegations in detail either, saying only that ‘the current disruption we are experiencing is simply putting too much unnecessary pressure on the business’.
The company was investigating an allegation of ‘personal misconduct’. He separately denied ‘an allegation of financial impropriety’.
Sources close to Sorrell – thought to be worth around £500 million – said that he still did not know what the exact allegations against him were, but suggested that the circumstances of his departure implied that he had been cleared.
A friend said: ‘It has been a very difficult couple of weeks for Martin. Frankly, he feels the whole process has not been handled well and has been very unpleasant.
Change: WPP headquarters in Farm Street, in London’s Mayfair
‘Bluntly, he feels he can’t work with the board any more. He has taken the view ‘‘s** it’’ for his own sake and his family’s sake.’
Roberto Quarta, the chairman, who is currently a part-time non executive, becomes executive chairman while a search gets under way for a successor to Sorrell.
Quarta’s executive role is likely to anger investors because he is also chairman of hip replacement group Smith & Nephew and some shareholders are worried he will not have enough time to fulfil his duties there as well as a bigger role at WPP.
Supporters of Sorrell said the veteran adman was annoyed at leaks about the investigation to the Wall Street Journal which he believed had come from the board.
The interviews conducted with him by law firm WilmerHale which was in charge of the inquiry were said to have been ‘very aggressive’.
Sorrell turned WPP from a maker of wire baskets called Wire and Plastic Products into one of the major global advertising giants.
His time at the company has been controversial, though, and last week’s Mail on Sunday reported that he might be on the brink of leaving.
There have been shareholder revolts over lavish pay awards. In 2015 he was paid £70.4 million, while the next year he netted £48 million. In 2005 he paid a then record divorce settlement of £29 million to his wife of 33 years, Sandra. The agreement included a £3.25 million Georgian townhouse in Central London.
He went on to marry Italian economist Cristiana Falcone in 2008, with whom he had a daughter in 2016, when he was 71.
Quarta said: ‘Sir Martin has been the driving force behind the expansion of WPP to create the global leader in marketing services.
‘During this time, the company has been successful because it has valued and nurtured outstanding talent at every level – within and well beyond our leadership teams.
‘On behalf of the board, I would like to recognise these achievements and thank Sir Martin for his commitment to the business over more than three decades.’