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How to cheat in business

How do you get ahead in business, how do you climb to the top of its greasy pole and reign supreme? There a few tried and tested models and then there’s cheating.

You may choose to join a company or a sector, stay loyal to it, learn your trade and progress to the pinnacle. Well done; you are now CEO of a FTSE 100 company and are earning around £2 million per annum plus shares. The advantage of this approach is that it leaves you with a huge pension pot and quite probably a knighthood. The downside is you must present as whiter than white. You will have to be boring and dedicate your your life to the shareholders (and your pension pot), rather than indulging yourself in the excess of joys this type of power could bring.

Another approach is the (serial) entrepreneur who sets up a company, watches it grow and annoys everyone as they see your personal wealth go stratospheric. The good thing about this approach is that you can, in theory, behave as you like over your personal fiefdom. The downside is that because of social media (which is probably how you made your billions), you too are becoming morally accountable. Also you will become very unlikely to win the knighthood unless you pay your fair share of taxes. Which you won’t.

Then there is a third way, possibly the best of both worlds, but definitely cheating. It was the approach taken by one Martin Sorrell.

Sorrell had been the financial director for the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi from 1977 to 1985, managing its takeovers of companies in the US and the UK. In 1985, he was looking for  a listed company through which to build a worldwide marketing services company. He bought a controlling stake of just under 30% of WPP, (Wire and Plastic Products plc) who manufactured wire shopping baskets, for $676,000. The holding company was renamed WPP Group and in 1987 Sorrell became its chief executive.  

WPP then went on a spending spree, essentially buying up competitive agencies, to set up one massive advertising agency.   

In 1987 the company acquired J. Walter Thompson for $566m, in 1989, it bought Ogilvy Group for $864m. In May 2000, WPP agreed to acquire the United States-based advertising company Young & Rubicam for $5.7 billion, in what was at the time the largest ever takeover in the advertising sector, making WPP the largest advertising company in the world measured by billings and revenue, overtaking Omnicom Group and Interpublic.

You get the idea. Basically WPP bought its way to success, ensuring it kept the world’s juiciest advertising budgets by assimilating/wiping out opposition. A scorched-earth policy is one way of doing business, but it is surely cheating.

In April 2018, Martin Sorrell retired after 33 years, following allegations of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets; he was accused of hiring a prostitute on company expenses.

More seriously, perhaps, WPP has often been accused of going to great lengths to lower its corporate tax bill. The Guardian reported that between 2003 and 2009 the company paid £27m in UK corporation tax, compared to what the newspaper “might expect” based on reports of the firm making 15% of its profit in the UK, of around £126m.

Sir Martin Sorrell has opened up about the emotional toll of his acrimonious split with WPP, and revealed the “sky is the limit” as he builds up a rival marketing empire in the face of legal threats, which he has called S4 Capital.

His row with WPP, shows no signs of dying down, with S4 Capital triumphing against WPP to buy Dutch firm MediaMonks.

When he first founded WPP more than 30 years ago, with the buyout of Wire and Plastics Products, he completed 18 deals in the first 18 months.

This time he plans to do things differently. He wants to focus on digital-only marketing, using MediaMonks as a platform to grow organically and by acquisition to tap into the $200bn (£151bn) global market.

There will also be less bureaucracy, with the firm more “nimble and agile”, while it will be a so-called unitary company where management in acquired firms have stakes in the wider group. He said his departure from WPP has given him the space to reflect.

Nonsense; he hasn’t got time for things to grow organically, he has been entitled to a free bus pass for nearly 15 years. It’s going to Sorrell business as usual, only much quicker.

Sorrell has put £40m of his own cash into the new business and attracted £11m more from institutional investors. His backers include the investment firms Schroders, Miton Group and Lombard Odier, as well as the financier Lord Rothschild.

A few weeks ago S4 Capital raised £130m in an equity placing and also secured a €50m loan from HSBC.

Sorrell bought Dutch firm MediaMonks for €300m and it looks like, at the age of 73, he wants to rapidly cheat his way to the top again, borrowing money to splurge on the ‘best in class’ companies, stifling competition and creating a monopoly measured successfully by whatever criteria he likes.

It’s just not cricket.

 

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