Some possible thoughts for Entrepreneurs…with Sir Martin Sorrell
We were lucky enough to connect with Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder of S4 Capital plc, the new age/ new era digital advertising and marketing services company and of WPP plc, which was formally, when he led it, the world’s largest advertising and marketing services group.
In 2018, instead of retiring (a move he vows never to make!) he started S4 Capital and in just over 2 years he has built it into a double sterling (£) unicorn. In 1985, he invested in Wire and Plastic Products, focusing on the less fashionable services in advertising, before surprising the industry by taking over some of the leading agencies in the business.
We chatted to Sir Martin about how he got started, knowing what you want, and what budding entrepreneurs should look out for to make a successful business out of their big idea.
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU START
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And it is, once you’ve worked it out. When starting a business, everyone comes at it from a different angle. Sir Martin Sorrell, for example, knew at the start that whatever he did, he wanted to own and manage something of scale. That was his goal, and every move he made after that was an answer to the question, “Will this help the company grow at scale?”. Fast forward to now, and his new business has a new mission — to disrupt the industry he’s been in for 30 years. And according to Sir Martin, the secret is this — have a strong strategic vision, build the structure to carry it out, then (and this is the hard work part), simply implement it!
So, what is it you want? Do you believe in the product or service passionately? Are you only interested in doing or creating something you love? Are you less interested in the product or service itself and more in the profit it can generate? All are equally viable reasons to start a business, but you’ll have a much easier time getting it off the ground if you know what you want, and why.
WORK OUT WHO THE RIGHT PEOPLE ARE — THEN FIND THEM
As Sir Martin says, the qualities needed to start a business and the qualities needed to run a business, aren’t the same qualities. And yes, some entrepreneurs do have both — take Elon Musk or Sir Richard Branson as an example. But if you think you’re going to be great at starting a business but worry about the day to day running (or simply know instinctively that it isn’t your forte), then find people to work with who possess the skills you lack. Your business will flourish if you have an ideas person (you) and a practicalities person (your partner), but it won’t get anywhere if you both have loads of fantastic ideas, and understanding about your sector, but no idea how to keep the business running smoothly day to day.
Sir Martin also recommends finding people whose enthusiasm and motivation is innate. You know, the type of people who don’t need to be told what to do, but just do it. As long as your team is committed to the business and willing to put in the hours, you’ll soon be on the trajectory you’re looking for.
LISTEN TO THE UNSUNG HEROES IN YOUR LIFE
Not everyone has great role models to teach them how to cultivate an unshakeable work ethic. Sir Martin Sorrell, whose work ethic is unquestionable, was lucky — he only had to look as far as his family. His father, the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants based in East London, had no formal education past the age of 13, when he had to go out and earn money to keep the family afloat “despite the fact that he could play the violin or recite whole pages of Shakespeare and the Talmud. ”Sorrell looked to his father and formidable grandmother for inspiration to work as hard as he could to put as much food on the table as he and his family could ever want or need.
And his inspiration didn’t stop there — Sorrell recognised early on that a formal education was no substitute for the kind of smarts his father had. During his Ogilvy takeover, Sorrell spoke to his father many times a day, not about the specifics of a corporate takeover, but about what reactions he could expect, and how to deal with people one on one.
DIVERSITY ISN’T JUST A BUZZWORD, IT’S VITAL
It’s absolutely essential in the modern world to understand that being educated is great, but it isn’t everything. If you only seek to hire graduates with academic excellence, you’re being willfully ignorant of how the world works — that not everyone has academic opportunities, but that many more have the raw talent to succeed, if someone gives them a chance.
Sir Martin believes that businesses should represent the areas they’re working in proportionally — so if one of your offices is in South America, it should employ a proportional amount of people from the area. And he’s the first to admit there’s always room for improvement. In 2020, Sir Martin created a 4 year fellowship exclusively for black high school students and postgrads) and he’s also tasked employees of colour to help with recruitment.
“At S4, we have 3500 people working in content and the average age is 32, and 700 in data and analytics, average age around 27. and we’re balanced 50/50 men and women and racially, we have 40% people of colour, which is huge in the tech and advertising/marketing industry. We’ve gone up from 3% to 6% black employees. We are doing ok in California, but we are very under-representing in our New York office, and we have to get that up.”
It’s not just lip service either — commercially, it’s much harder to win new business if the team you put together to pitch for a contract is an all-male, all-white team — no matter how good the idea may be, you’ll never get that job.
“We’re committed to proportionally represent the communities we work with.” Sir Martin says. “And procurement is the way to make rapid change fast. If you say “We won’t take you on as a supplier or partner unless you have a diverse team”, that’s the fastest way to get opportunities to minorities”
WORK OUT WHERE THE GROWTH IS AND FOLLOW IT
Let’s assume that all entrepreneurs want their business to grow, and not at a snail’s pace. That’s a logical goal, but what isn’t logical is starting a business in a sector that’s static. No matter how great your product, unless it’s life-changing enough to restart a sector, there’s no point in going into an area that simply isn’t moving. For example, you wouldn’t want to start a magazine in the age of the internet and expect it to become a must-have.
It’s this basic principle that Sir Martin Sorrell has stuck by with every new job he’s had, and new business he’s started — find the growth. After so many years working in the traditional advertising spaces, his new venture is exclusively digital; it’s the fastest-growing sector in advertising, and it just makes sense to focus singularly on where the most movement can be found. It’s pointless to wrestle with an industry that’s flat or declining, no matter how much you may want to be the one to revive it.
In short, do the research, and make sure the industry you’re entering is moving forward and moving fast.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE NOT THE PAST
All you really need to be able to do is spot patterns in your industry or in the market — it’s not rocket science. If you’re going into business to reinvent the wheel, you’re starting off on the back foot, so always try to look forwards, to the future, to where growth and innovation are happening. Plus, in Sir Martin’s words, “Work on the assumption that you’re averagely intelligent, and don’t believe you’re brighter or dumber than anyone else!”.