‘Queen of media’ predicts break-up of WPP following Sorrell’s departure

An electronic billboard advertising Coca-Cola in Medford, Massachusetts
Yoon S. Byun | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

The future direction of WPP remains unclear after the departure of its founder and chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell following 33 years at the helm.

Prior to his departure earlier this month, the world's largest advertising firm said it was investigating Sorrell over "an allegation of personal misconduct."

WPP employs more than 200,000 staff in 400 separate ad businesses across 112 countries. Analysts are divided over the firm's future, with some speculating that it could be broken up to realize value.

Lorna Tilbian is a former media banker and analyst who famously called both the top on advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi's shares at the end of the 1980s and the bottom price for WPP's share price in 1992. At a retirement dinner in her honor, she was toasted by Maurice Saatchi as "the undoubted queen of the media."

Speaking to CNBC on the phone Friday, Tilbian said that Sorrell's departure looked like a disagreement over the company's future direction.

"I think it's a strategic fallout if you ask me," she said. "Because if it was succession there would have been an orderly handover and it would not have been starting the search now."

Martin Sorrell, the former chief executive officer of WPP Plc.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Tilbian said WPP looked ripe to be broken up. "It's a circus and he was the ringmaster. The very fact that they are going to need at least three people to replace him, kind of tells you that."

She said breaking up WPP and selling off the data management firm Kantar would provide the board with "an elegant way" to cut an expensive dividend.

"The payout ratio is too high, especially given the debts. I mean £5 billion is a lot of debt at the top of the cycle," she added.

WPP was founded as Wire and Plastic Products in 1971 to manufacture wire shopping baskets. It was bought by Sorrell as a shell company in 1985 and retooled as a worldwide marketing services company. The firm is split into different areas of income, including advertising and media investment, PR, market research, as well as digital and healthcare.

After years of acquisitions and stellar growth, the firm has struggled and in the last year has witnessed its share price slump by around a third in value.

Tilbian, who is now a non-executive director at Saatchi & Saatchi, said WPP currently faced a perfect storm of cyclical and structural headwinds, competition from internet giants and the threat of audit consultancies muscling into the marketing world.

She said the idea of a big consultancy such as Accenture, PWC or KPMG coming in with a mammoth bid for WPP was entirely plausible.

"It is all about getting closer to the end user. And because the agencies are all involved in getting the new product development and strategic placing of the brand, it kind of gets the consultancy in at the very ground floor."

Related: WPP's Sorrell says media consolidation is "inevitable" (March 2018)

WPP's Martin Sorrell: Consolidation is 'inevitable' amid pressure from Amazon, Netflix

Another who sees the threat of big audit firms is Mark Ritson, adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School.

"They are very keen to compete with WPP and, many believe, one of these cash-rich companies may even mount a bid to buy WPP and bolt it on to their own marketing offerings," he told CNBC via email Friday. "There was a sense that Sir Martin was keen to defend his company and hold back from big change. With him gone all bets are off."

Ritson said the rise of new ad models, led by the likes of Facebook and Google, had put severe pressure on agencies under the WPP umbrella and mergers would be one way to make savings.

WPP itself has denied break-up speculation, telling employees in a memo that "we need to get closer together, not further apart."

Brian Weiser, senior media analyst at Pivotal, told CNBC on Thursday that while WPP is under pressure, it only underperformed its rivals by one percentage point last year. He said the firm's report card often suffered as it was measured against FTSE stocks rather than industry peers.

He said it was "highly unlikely" that a complete breakup of the conglomerate would occur, but many investors might like to see some cash realized through the sale of data firm Kantar.

Weiser added that with Sorrell now gone, it was also possible that some agencies would seek to leave the WPP fold, but he expected the board to soon invest in more assets.