Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive of WPP, is bending the cardinal rules of Head Office, with characteristic Napoleonic authority. He will not permit even a peep into his private offices, as he prefers to guard his privacy. He merely deigns to admit that he is a “big hoarder, with paraphernalia, such as the Superman suit my peers gave to me 10 years ago". So we meet him in a rather bland conference room, on the ground floor of the central London corporate offices of one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing services groups.

No-nonsense outlook: Sorrell’s office—a set of two converted, pre-1930s’ town houses—is in London’s Mayfair area. Photo: Bhaskar Dasgupta

Contradictory views

When you first hear him out, his views on the workplace appear contradictory.

No-nonsense outlook: Martin Sorrell at the WPP office’s conference room in London; and the bright yellow front door looks attractive and welcoming, but the actual entrance is tucked under an archway, around the corner. Photo: Bhaskar Dasgupta

Equally, he proclaims that “when you walk into the front door (of WPP), the last thing you should think is that this is the headquarters of the largest advertising and marketing services company in the world". He clarifies the dichotomy by pointing out that the role of the parent company is a staff function, not an operational, revenue-producing role, and must therefore remain lean, eschewing lavish excesses.

WPP’s offices have been strictly carved out of the existing spaces occupied by other WPP group agencies—reflecting Sorrell’s pragmatism—rather than any desire to build an iconic building for the global headquarters.

The location for Sorrell’s London office, 27 Farm Street, is a set of two converted, pre-1930s’ town houses, on a quiet road off Berkeley Square, Mayfair’s prestigious centrepiece. It is spectacularly unassuming. The bright yellow front door attracts passers-by, but the actual entrance is tucked under an archway, around the corner, which has better access to the space. If anything, the building itself is a metaphor for Sorrell’s approach to his business. This hybrid of two town houses merged into one operating space is analogous to the multi-bodied WPP, a conglomerate of more than 150 agencies, stacked together by acquisition over the years.

The office’s earlier occupant was the regional head of European operations of J Walter Thompson (JWT), the first major WPP acquisition in 1987. After the takeover, Sorrell concluded that it made more sense for JWT’s regional head to be based at the agency’s main offices in Berkeley Square, a few minutes away, and that the Farm Street offices were better utilized for WPP’s corporate headquarters. In New York, where Sorrell spends half his time, WPP’s office footprint has similarly kept pace with its acquisitions. His first New York office was in the same building as JWT, followed, for many years, by one in the same buildings as Ogilvy and Mather, a rival agency that WPP acquired in 1989. WPP in New York now occupies space in the offices that earlier belonged to TNS, a market research firm and recent acquisition.

It is this fiscal discipline that has allowed him to successfully create and operate a monolithic empire in an industry earlier dominated by individual fiefdoms and small hot-shops. This pragmatism is underlined by Sorrell’s no-nonsense attitude towards the advertising and marketing services industry, which he says “failed to acknowledge, or ever acknowledge, that it was a business", prior to his consolidation spree.

Sustainable creativity

Our conversation on workplaces also captures another pronounced Sorrell trait—the ability to grasp big-picture ideas (such as the role of the parent company versus the role of the individual agency), and to translate them into practical detail (tangible bricks and mortar offices).

Just as Sorrell maintains financial conservatism for the parent company, he recognizes that an inspiring workplace can stimulate the creativity that is the lifeline of WPP agencies, remarking that “there is a correlation between office plan and energy".

Sorrell is well aware of the physical dimensions of individual agencies, and unlike most chief executives, has made it his business to correlate workplace design with business issues. “The biggest problem in our business is getting people to work together," he analyses. The open-plan Buenos Aires office found its way into the WPP’s annual report because he realized that tearing down walls was a valuable architectural device to foster collaboration, which would move companies towards a “networked organization structure", rather than traditional, “siloed" divisional units.

Since then, WPP has devised a Space Programme—an online platform where agencies within the network can confidentially share best practices in managing real estate, through creative, cost-effective use of space. In keeping with the climate change zeitgeist, Sorrell also lists energy-efficient buildings as a focus area in reducing waste, citing the ubiquitous phrase of “green business is good business".

Growth plans

Our conversation on workplace is timely. WPP celebrated its 25th anniversary in May and Sorrell’s journey towards global domination began with “two people in a room the size of this conference room", as he has often said earlier. Twenty-five years and 138,000 employees later, his personal office, on the floor above us, is probably about the same size as the conference room.

This apparent contradiction parallels Sorrell’s curious role within WPP. He is the founder of the global conglomerate, its chief executive, the face of the parent brand, and yet only a minority (albeit wealthy) shareholder, with less than 2% ownership of the company. His position is especially unusual for observers accustomed to India’s promoter-driven business environment, where company management, ownership and public relations are usually embodied in a single individual. For Sorrell, corporate ambition is clearly not defined merely by the amount of individual shareholding, or the size of the chief executive’s office.

Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

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