Thursday, May 13, 2004

Sir Martin Sorrell

Chances are, you have no idea who this guy is, or why he gets a ‘sir’ in front of his name. I don’t know the answer the second part, but as one of the founders of WPP, he’s one of the who’s who of the advertising/marketing business. WPP is one of the big marcom conglomerates, up there with Omnicom and IPG, and owns companies like J. Walter Thompson, Hill & Knowlton, Burson Marsteller, Young & Rubicam, and everything Ogilvy--a healthy slice of the advertising business (H&K is one of a handful of PR firms that I know).

So why I am I writing about him? Because it’s my own personal Speaker Week (yes, attending two speaking engagements can make it Speaker Week when overall speaker attendance is taken into consideration). And I doubt anyone wants to hear about the project du jour that owns the other 90% of my life (sleep included, but drinking, thankfully, is not).

But really, he was a good speaker, despite quiet British thing he had going on that made him hard to hear at times. As someone who’s in the business of marketing from every angle, he’s aware of the major trends taking place affecting it, and had a few interesting things to say about that.

WPP owns companies internationally, with a plurality of their assets (40%) in the U.S. This divide, in addition to Sorrell’s being born in the U.K., means he had some very specific ideas about globalization, which he observed was really more widespread Americanization. American businesses that require growth can’t afford to increase share in the U.S. market so they go outside it, and companies that originate outside the U.S. that was to truly be international must scratch out a sizeable share of the U.S. market in order to do so. That’s all well and good; as Americans, we really don’t care that much, but if you want an eye to where the market is going, Sorrell hypothesized that U.S. dominance is going to falter, and that right soon. The decline in population in the West means India and China are coming up on our tails fast. Arguments against them representing attractive markets--that despite harboring nearly a third of the world’s population, the number that can actually buy the products most corporations have to offer is much smaller--are silly because dominating even a small percentage of such huge numbers is still a lot of money, and that small percentage is going to grow. Power and wealth will shift back to the East, encapsulating not just China and India, but other Asian countries and the Middle East. The Muslim population represents 25% of the world population and it’s growing, and it’s a culture that Westerners have great difficulty in understanding.

Another interesting point he brought up was with respect to marketing. The role of marketing is to differentiate products according to intangible attributes since it is no longer possible to really differentiate on tangible ones. No one wins price wars, either. But the shift from traditional marketing vehicles--nothing new--is far more dramatic than one might think. The face of marketing is changing because a. organizations want to move into more measurable media, like direct marketing and the internet, so they can make more decisions based on quantifiable characteristics; and b. even these marketing channels are getting less attention than they might because they’re externally focused, and companies are realizing more and more that you need to communicate successfully internally before you can do so externally. Your own employees have to be on your side, because they’re the ones your customer comes into contact with, and not just your customer, but other potential customers, potential employees, competitors, and the press, all of whom stand to make a difference to how successful your business is based on their interaction with your employees. Close of 50% of WPP’s work is on internal rather than external communications.

That’s most of the interesting stuff; none of it is really new, but the magnitude and proximity is what makes it worth mentioning. He also talked about the dominance of retailers over the market (Wal-Mart) and how the internet is changing market research and, by extension, marketing responsiveness, but we knew that already.

All in all, an hour well spent (I kind of checked out for the last half hour… nothing could make me get over my current state of sleep deprivation, least of all a British accent). Ted Sorensen was better, but I think that’s to be expected. Upon further reflection, I was really lucky to have gotten to see him, as how much better can you get as a speaker when you spent a career as a speechwriter?

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