The Interviewer’s view
Cannes in 360
Issue 48 | September 2018
Stephen Lepitak, Editor, The Drum.
Stephen Lepitak is the Editor of The Drum, which this year took over an Irish pub on the Quai St. Pierre, down by the harbour, renaming it The Drum Arms. As well as hosting a series of inspirational and educational talks and reporting the news, The Drum also created news when Sir Martin Sorrell agreed to give his first interview since quitting WPP – in the pub.
Directory: This year at Cannes you made the news - as well as reporting on it. How did you get Sir Martin to give you the scoop?
SL: I just asked him, would he give an interview? I've been asking him to be involved with one of our events for a long time and I guess he thought the time was right to ensure he was front and centre at Cannes for another year.
Directory: Why do you think he chose The Drum?
SL: You'd need to ask him that as I'd only be guessing his reasons but he had things to say and I think he knew that we would ask the questions that people in the advertising world wanted asking.
A lot of people believed he wouldn't show up. They came to the pub just to see if it was a stunt and were pretty amazed when he walked in.
Directory: For you personally, was Cannes 2018 different to 2017?
SL: The festival seemed to be far more focused than recent years. I could tell that first thing on Monday morning.
The conversations were about the industry and what was happening. Before, it was far more relaxed.
Directory: Why do you think Ascential (the company that owns Cannes Lions) chose to part company with Cannes Lions MD Jose´ Papa a few weeks after the festival ended?
SL: I have real sympathy with Jose´, he's a very nice guy. He's genuine and he really cared about the festival. Speculating, I guess that if the numbers are down then the man at the top takes the fall but I do think given more time he would have turned it around.
Directory: So, why did The Drum have a permanent base in Cannes this year and what were the intentions behind taking over a bar?
SL: We've started to have The Drum Arms at all the festivals we go to in order to extend the activities taking place and to provide an antidote to them. Where conferences and the like can be very full-on, The Drum Arms is something different, a place of rest.
We run events, which we can use as content, covering topics we believe are important. People can have a free drink on us, meet the team or catch up with each other. We hope that one day, our readers will start to look out for The Drum Arms whenever they go.
Directory: Did the pub fulfil all the objectives you had of it? After all, you could have simply spent less money and behaved like journalists rather than participants.
SL: We did behave like journalists. Across the week we were interviewing many of the more important visitors to the festival about the big issues such as AI and trust and we provided reports and content on many of the seminars and discussions.
Directory: What do you think Cannes is all about now?
SL: Hard to say as it's about many things. Insights, creativity, socialising, networking, fun but it's also about furthering yourself. No one should go to Cannes and not take away something, be it new business, inspiration or sun burn.
It's important because the advertising industry needs a global event, where everybody who goes goes because they want to be seen there.
Directory: Best and worst parts of Cannes 2018?
LS: Best bit was interviewing Sorrell. That was pretty special and to see people being genuinely amazed by it.
And the worst moment? Running a five-kilometre race along the Croisette first thing on Monday morning, before the festival kicked off.
Not a good idea though I did get a medal for it.
Stephen Lepitak's interview
Sorrell kicked off by addressing the media coverage around a swirl of allegations, which included reports from The Daily Mail and The Wall Street Journal that he had visited premises used by sex workers following the firm's AGM in 2017. The suggestion being that the alleged visit was paid for with company money.
"There's been some pretty fanciful stuff [printed around] what may or may not have happened," he said, observing that even the initial news around his WPP exit was badly handled by the advertising giant.
Sorrell stepped down following an investigation into his conduct by the WPP board, and both parties signed an NDA, meaning details of his resignation are not likely to be formally discussed. When WPP concluded its investigation, it said the probe "did not involve amounts which were material to WPP".
On his departure being leaked by a source "at the very top" of his beloved business on a Saturday night over a holiday weekend, Sorrell said: "There are other courses of action that were open to the company of which they did not take.
"The most damaging thing that happened during the course of those events was the leak over the Easter weekend... which to my knowledge hasn't been investigated." Sorrell confirmed to The Drum that he has asked the business to investigate the matter further.
The chief executive also gave a spirited defence against a report from the Financial Times which claimed he was a "bully". "Am I the easiest person in the world to get along with?" he said. "You know that I am difficult, but if it's a fault to demand or expect excellence then mea culpa."
Just six weeks after his departure, Sorrell made a surprise, and quick, comeback as chief executive of S4 Capital – a shell company which has just raised £51m in private equity. Backed by £40m of Sorrell's own cash, the business will look to build a "multi-national communication services business focused on growth," with Sorrell teasing that it will be "very different" from WPP. S4 Capital will be based on the mantra of "new era, new age," he said.
"[It's] an acknowledgement that the business has changed. The structure of S4 Capital will be very different in structure than anything we saw at WPP."
Sorrell, who is still a 2% shareholder in WPP, also revealed that WPP's succession plan – the lack of which has been a talking point in the industry for years – has actually been in place for close to a decade on the basis of him being "hit by a bus," which he likened to his actual departure.
"For the last 10 years there has been a succession programme. The plan was for Mark Read and Andrew Scott to be joint chief executives. If it's an internal decision...my view strongly would be those two individuals have complementary skills."
He added: "I say two not because nobody could replace me, but because the two together would be a powerful combination."
First published on June 21st and reproduced here by kind permission of The Drum.
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