19: How To Make Your Second Act An Empire: WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell started building his company at age 40, after serving as CFO for Saatchi & Saatchi. He's still going strong at 72.

Sir Martin Sorrell is arguably the most important advertising executive in the world.

As CEO of WPP Group, he oversees a global marketing machine that he's assembled over more than 30 years. His group companies include J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and more than 100 others. Clients include two of every three Fortune Global 500 companies.  

When I sat down with him for the Fortt Knox podcast, I wanted to talk about his childhood, his career, and the pivotal choices he made. He didn't disappoint.  

Here are some of the best lessons: 

It's Never Too Late 

Sorrell was chief financial officer at upstart ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi when he decided to quit and build his own company. He was 40 years old. In an era when Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel and the Google founders are starting companies in their teens and early 20s, that might sound like a late start, but Sorrell doesn't see it that way.  

"I thought it would be good to have a go. I'd made a little bit of money, and borrowed 250 thousand pounds," he says. "Forty in those days used to be a pretty critical age. Because you think of yourself starting work when you're about 20, you come out of college, and finishing when you're 60. Now, of course, here I am at 72 still going." 

Then again, Sorrell doesn't seem to obey the calendar like most people. Today he's the father of an infant daughter, his fourth child.  

Grow a Thick Skin 

Sorrell's tactics building WPP have not always been genteel. As he aggressively built out his holding company, he sometimes employed hostile takeovers. At the beginning of one such campaign, when he targeted Ogilvy & Mather, founder David Ogilvy famously referred to Sorrell as an "odious little s--t." (In the press, the comment was sanitized to "odious little jerk," and Sorrell seized upon it as a point of pride.) 

Sorrell later won Ogilvy over. I asked him where he learned to shrug off the attacks that have come with the job.  

"It gets into fairly tender stuff. When you're from the northwest London ghetto – I use the ghetto loosely, because it wasn't really a ghetto – Golders Green, Edgware, Mill Hill – you probably develop a pretty thick skin. People say things at school," when you're one of the few Jewish kids, he says. "In those days there was a fair bit of invective, and it's water off a duck's back. What I had to go through was nothing near what my parents had to go through, or my grandparents had to go through." 

No one should have to suffer bigoted put-downs, but a young Martin Sorrell was able to build up a degree of immunity to it. It clearly helped him in business later. 

Hunt Buried Treasure 

When Sorrell targeted ad agency J. Walter Thompson for takeover, one of the things he had his eye on was freehold property – land and buildings that the target owned outright. From his days as a chief financial officer, he had learned that this often could amount to buried treasure. Companies weren't required to re-value such real estate holdings as their value rose. To make a long story short – even though WPP paid a pretty penny for JWT, Sorrell quickly discovered hidden real estate holdings that effectively paid him back a huge portion of the sticker price. 

The universal lesson here for your career makeover? Sometimes finding buried treasure is just a matter of knowing where to look. Fortunately, Sorrell's previous job had armed him with that knowledge.