Apologising profusely for being late by 15 minutes, and trailed by his retinue of staff and publicists and minders and handlers, Sir Martin Sorrell, 65, strides into this interview. We are meeting in a hotel overlooking the Powai Lake in Mumbai, and through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the business centre, the gunmetal water gleams under a cloudless sky.
Sir Martin — knighted in 2000 — is a self-made monarch. His empire is the WPP Group, which is arguably the world’s biggest umbrella group of advertising and marketing companies. He is a small man, his height perhaps in inverse proportion to his stature. “I’m sorry,” he says again, the politeness not at odds with, but adding another layer to, his formidable presence.
Sorrel is in Mumbai for FICCI FRAMES 2010, a media and entertainment conference. He has the demeanour of the sort of man — and I think I am stealing the line from a Chekov story — whom you’d always let pass through the door first.
At the outset, it’s best to get out of the way what we aren’t going to talk about: the WPP group’s annual revenues of $14 billion (Rs 63,700 crore); its interest in India, which accounts for 3 per cent of the group’s revenue ($400 million, Rs 18.16 crore); its fiercely acquisitive approach (WPP’s $566 million — Rs 2,575 crore — 1987 hostile takeover of J. Walter Thompson is part of contemporary ad world lore); and Sorrel’s views on whether the recession in the West is truly over.
What we are here to talk about is cricket, a game that is Sorrel’s enduring passion, and one, with the Indian Premier League (IPL) on, is of great and urgent interest.
“One of my guys created the Mongoose bat,” he says. Given the extent of his kingdom, anyone who is anyone has a fair chance of being one of his guys. In this instance, it happens to be Marcus Codrington Fernandez, a former creative director at the advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather (which, of course, WPP owns). “He was in hospital for a couple of months, and he kept thinking of how he could improve the cricket bat,” Sorrel says.
The idea was to do away with the shoulders of the bat, make the handle much longer than it usually is, and to make the blade much shorter and heavier. Which is to say, to do away with the bits that had nothing to do with whacking the ball with primal ferocity, and strengthening the bits that did.
It is — as Matthew Hayden, the official endorser of the Mongoose bat, showed on Friday night — said to be a weapon fit for murdering bowlers. Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) — the 223-year-old London-based private members’ club that frames the laws of cricket — gave permission for the bat to be used (Sorrell is a member of the MCC; his club tie “took an awfully long time to come”), and now it is one of the most talked-about things in the world of cricket. “It really works,” Sorrel says. “I bought my younger son a couple of them for his birthday.” At 65, he runs the WPP’s cricket team, and he still plays a dozen games every year. He goes to Lord’s for the Test every year. “Oh, there is nothing quite like a five-day Test.” Do Tests need to be marketed better? “Better?” he snorts. “That would imply that it is being marketed. It is not being marketed at all.” He was on the marketing committee of the MCC. “I said at a meeting what I thought should be done. The next day, the committee chairman called me and said, ‘Sorry, that wasn’t quite how the MCC does things’.”
Sorrell doesn’t want to buy an IPL team. “That would be too much flamboyant consumption,” he says. “But our guys are doing the marketing for the Mumbai Indians side. And we did the original branding for the IPL.”
How does he react to Twenty20 cricket? “I wouldn’t want to sound like an old fart by thirsting for the past. The T20 format is a good example of how a game adapts. But we desperately need some balance.” Given that this comes from one of the world’s leading businessmen, Lalit Modi and the Board of Control for Cricket in India could do worse than to hear him.