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Martin Sorrell chose an Irish pub at Cannes Lions to launch his comeback tour Thursday, calling reports about his controversial ouster from WPP in April “scurrilous” and announcing his new technologically-driven ad and media company.
Sorrell, 73, one of the U.K.’s most storied businessmen, decried the “press frenzy” around his exit in April after 30 years at the helm of WPP for alleged misuse of company funds to pay a prostitute. Sorrell has denied all the charges.
His firing was like being “hit by a bus” or “shot,” Sorrell told the crowd in the bar. But he laughed ironically when he said it, perhaps because he reportedly got a $27 million payout to walk away.
The canny Harvard Business School graduate turned what had been a wire shopping basket company into a $20 billion ad behemoth, but its fortunes had begun to dip. It’s believed WPP’s board turned on him, Shakespearean-style, over Easter when damning information was leaked to The Wall Street Journal about his alleged misdeeds.
Sorrell was the talk of Cannes even before arriving late Wednesday night, as the ad world watches if he plans to change his business model of delivering ads, marketing and data in the digital universe.
Sorrell, interviewed by the Drum’s Stephen Lepitak, scolded the media for what he said was unfair and untrue coverage of what went down at WPP.
“The most fanciful is that I’m now a whistleblower for the FBI,” Sorrell said. “That’s the latest to come to you from the House of Press. What has come out could have been told significantly differently.”
“Most damaging thing from those events was the leak over Easter,” Sorrell said. He has asked for an investigation into how the information got out but said nothing has happened.
He also threatened to “publish emails.” It was not immediately clear what he meant, but it is believed that he could publish emails from Financial Times reporters that could presumably reveal the identities of those behind the leak.
Sorrell sometimes slipped and spoke as he were still running WPP and he said he didn’t mean to condemn their more old-school way of doing things. His new company, though, may be an “acknowledgement that the business has changed.”
London-listed S4 Capital, the new company, is being built on the shell of Denniston Capital and named for four generations of Sorrell’s family. Sorrell said he has raised about $67 million for the new venture, which plans to be an “international communication services business focused on growth.” Sorrell noted he hoped “not to be frenemies” with Google, Facebook and Amazon and that S4 Captial will be structured differently than WPP, though he did not go into detail.
“We are starting at ground zero,” Sorrell said, promising “grand ambition” and end deals with the “highest companies.” S4 capital will be “more creative, more agile, less bureaucratic … I still get the feeling that that our industry is stuck in the past and we need to move into the future.”
“I know people are saying, My god he’s 73,’ Sorrell said. “I’m looking at next seven years and depending on my physical and mental condition, I’ll make a decision about another cycle after that.”
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