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How WPP CEO Martin Sorrell turned his second act into an empire

Jon Fortt | CNBC

Sir Martin Sorrell is arguably the most important advertising executive in the world.

As CEO of the WPP Group, he oversees a global marketing machine that he's assembled for more than 30 years. His group's companies include J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and more than 100 others, and clients include two of every three Fortune Global 500 companies.

When Fortt Knox sat down with him for its most recent podcast, he spoke about his childhood, his career, and the pivotal choices he made. He didn't disappoint.

Here are some of the best lessons:

It's Never Too Late

Sorrell was CFO at then-upstart ad firm Saatchi & Saatchi, when he decided to quit and build his own company. At the time, he was 40 years old.

In an era when Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel and the Google founders are starting companies in their teens and early 20s, that might sound like a late start, but Sorrell doesn't see it that way.

"I thought it would be good to have a go. I'd made a little bit of money, and borrowed 250,000 pounds [around $310,000 in today's exchange rate]," he said. "Forty in those days used to be a pretty critical age. Because you think of yourself starting work when you're about 20, you come out of college, and finishing when you're 60. Now, of course, here I am at 72 still going."

Then again, Sorrell doesn't seem to follow the calendar most people do. Today he's the father of an infant daughter, his fourth child.

"What I had to go through was nothing near what my parents had to go through, or my grandparents had to go through." -Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP 

Grow a Thick Skin

Sorrell's tactics building WPP have not always been genteel. As he aggressively built out his holding company, he sometimes employed hostile takeovers.

At the beginning of one such campaign, when he targeted Ogilvy & Mather, founder David Ogilvy famously referred to Sorrell as an "odious little s--t." (In the press, the comment was sanitized to "odious little jerk," but Sorrell nonetheless seized upon the episode as a point of pride.)

Sorrell later won Ogilvy over. Fortt Knox asked him where he learned to shrug off the attacks that have come with the job.

"It gets into fairly tender stuff. When you're from the northwest London ghetto – I use the ghetto loosely, because it wasn't really a ghetto – Golders Green, Edgware, Mill Hill – you probably develop a pretty thick skin. People say things at school," when you're one of the few Jewish kids, he said.

"In those days there was a fair bit of invective, and it's water off a duck's back," he added. "What I had to go through was nothing near what my parents had to go through, or my grandparents had to go through."

No one should have to suffer bigoted put-downs, but a young Martin Sorrell was able to build up a degree of immunity to it. It clearly helped him in business later.

Hunt Buried Treasure

When Sorrell targeted ad agency J. Walter Thompson for takeover, one of the things he had his eye on was freehold property – land and buildings that the target owned outright. From his days as a finance officer, he learned that this often could amount to buried treasure. Companies weren't required to re-value such real estate holdings as their value rose.

To make a long story short – even though WPP paid a pretty penny for JWT, Sorrell quickly discovered hidden real estate holdings that effectively paid him back a huge portion of the sticker price.

The universal lesson here for your career makeover? Sometimes finding buried treasure is just a matter of knowing where to look. Fortunately, Sorrell's previous job had armed him with that knowledge.


Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.