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Hard Choices: WPP CEO Martin Sorrell

Advertising juggernaut WPP's founder and chief on building his business, firing employees, and uniting the company after acquisitions

In 1985, I left Saatchi and invested in a small public company called WPP, eventually becoming chief executive officer. You might say my decision to leave was a form of male menopause. At 40, I hadn't started my own business so this felt like the last chance. About 18 months later, we purchased J.Walter Thompson, an advertising company 13 times our size. It was a hostile takeover. We paid $525million. It was a no-brainer: I didn't have much, so I had nothing to lose.

As I've grown WPP, the toughest choices for me always come down to people. The hardest thing is letting them go. It's horrible. You hesitate to do it, and there are cases where I know I've waited too long. It's hard to get everybody to play in the same sandbox. After an acquisition, some people don't want to be where they ended up. We have acquired companies that used to be competitors—Ogilvy, Grey, and Y&R—and it's difficult for rivals to come together. The mindset shifts with the second generation, but until then it's a challenge. We can't be a collection of businesses. Clients expect us to connect the dots. The task is to get every one of the 140,000 people here to know what the other 139,999 are doing.

When we buy a company, we always think of it as buying the team. Advertising and communications is a people business. Of course, people are cyclical, and partners in a business can change—especially when they become wealthy. We spend about $9billion annually on people, but we don't spend enough time evaluating that investment. The conventional wisdom in our business is if you need people, you poach them. The industry will not survive long term unless we change this attitude.

A founder has a different business perspective. WPP is highly personal to me. I've watched the bricks being put in the wall. Whoever does my job in the future will not do it the same way. I'm not saying they'll do it worse, but they won't have the same emotional attachment I've had.

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