The four-word stacked headline appeared in the print version of The Wall Street Journal last Wednesday:
The online headline went for the jugular, “WPP Is Looking at CEO Martin Sorrell’s Possible Misuse of Assets and Allegations of Improper Behavior.”
Before digging in, let’s get the disclosure out of the way. I am not a fan of the media holding companies that value the abacus over human beings. I’ve shared this perspective in posts such as “Omnicom and Publicis Finally Agree on a Message, ‘We’re Done.’” and “Translating the News Release on the Merger of Burson-Marsteller and Cohn &Wolfe.”
Naturally, I’ve grabbed my popcorn — ever so lightly salted — and soda and taken a seat to watch how one of the largest companies in the business of reputation management manages its own reputation.
The Journal story kicked off:
The board of advertising giant WPP PLC is looking into whether longtime Chief Executive Martin Sorrell misused company assets, according to people familiar with the matter.
In addition, the board is also looking into allegations of improper personal behavior by Mr. Sorrell, one of the people said.
Not a good look.
Zeroing on the phrase “misused company assets,” it’s tough to know what this means. Was Sir Martin using the company Xerox to make a copy of the agreement with his gardener or perhaps using a company driver to meet a buddy in Cornwall? Who knows? It’s hard to picture a man who commands an 8-digit comp package needing to pad his expense account (he really did eat two tuna sandwiches at lunch). One thing for sure given the look and feel of the WPP site, he’s not tapping WPP web designers for personal use.
What about “allegations of improper personal behavior?” We know what this is code for. All I can say is the HR folks at WPP are about to earn their keep.
I don’t have any contacts on mahogany row at WPP, but the situation feels like it’s headed to the Roman theatre with The Board playing the role of the Lion in a fight against Sir Martin. Clearly, The Board approached Sorrell about the alleged wrongdoing which he denied. Clearly the board wasn’t convinced, hence, the hiring of law firms (plural) to conduct an investigation.
Someone has taken a wrong turn. Either the Board overreached — I’ve gone with a gentle verb — or Sorrell wasn’t truthful. Regardless of who’s right, the episode is going to extract a pound of flesh from WPP’s reputation.
No doubt WPP has tapped its best crisis experts to construct all of the potential scenarios and how WPP should respond to minimize the damage. As an aside, wouldn’t it be rich to have a look at the handling of internal billings for this debacle?
Historically, the combative Sorrell hasn’t been one to back down from a scrape. In a statement emailed to the media by Project Associates, Sorrel shares his position:
“I reject the allegation unreservedly but recognize that the company has to investigate it.”
WPP owns 400+ companies, yet Sorrell went outside the family to engage Project Associates, “an international communications consultancy specialising in reputation and crisis management.”
It would appear that the battle lines have been drawn. To borrow from Hamlet, “aye, there’s the rub.”
Will Sorrell’s actions to come prioritize WPP’s reputation or his personal reputation? While intertwined, they’re not the same thing. I guarantee the Project Associates team is not sharing a war room with the WPP crisis experts.
If I were part of the WPP team, I would view any outcome that doesn’t involve the push of the “nuclear button” — lawsuits flung from both directions — as a win.
Let the games begin.