As Succession Looms, WPP CEO Sorrell Writes His Epitaph: "He Tried to Cope"

Last Updated Apr 2, 2010 2:24 PM EDT

WPP (WPPGY) CEO Martin Sorrell seems to be increasingly worried about his legacy, and has even thought about what might appear on his tombstone. It's morbid but understandable, as he's 65. Sooner or later he'll choose to step back from the advertising giant he founded and barrels of electronic ink will be spilled on his achievements.

Since last May, when WPP announced it was going through the diligence exercise of identifying successors to the company's founder, Sorrell has repeatedly entertained questions about the future -- and that seems to have him thinking about the past, or at least the way history will regard him.

One of Sorrell's worries is, What will Harvard think? He told India's Economic Times that WPP is the subject of a long Harvard Business School study of his company. Sorrell is a Harvard grad, and HBS's case studies are the holy books of MBA graduates everywhere. They will live on as the verdict on WPP long after Sorrell is gone:

A Harvard professor named Joe Bower has been writing a case study on WPP for many years. About ten years ago they invited me to the school when they had a course for business school deans. It was pretty intimidating bunch of people. One of the deans said to me, you've done nothing, you just sat there and haven't really changed anything. I was a bit upset.
(Note that the interview contains yet another of Sorrell's Lehman Brothers' namechecks -- the bank's collapse seems to haunt him.)

But that's nothing compared to the interview Sorrell gave to Business Intelligence-Middle East, in which he got positively misty:

"I did a course there [at Harvard] taught by the son of (American statesman and Boston Brahmin) Henry Cabot Lodge, George Cabot Lodge, called 'Planning in the Business Environment.' It was a compulsory course and to get an 'A' all you had to do was draw three circles that would intersect. The first circle was career, the second was family; and the third circle was society. And the point was, how can you maintain the balance between the three? It's amazingly difficult and I've been tremendously unsuccessful," he adds sheepishly.
That last sentence is possibly a reference to his Clash of the Titans-style divorce from Sandra Sorrell, his wife of 33 years. He continued:
... And how would he liked to be remembered? "The thing on the gravestone," he reflects, "is like this: 'He started something and managed it, maybe not very well, but he tried to cope with managing it'."
"Not very well but he tried to cope"? The obits will say rather more than that, I suspect.

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Image by Flickr user Qole Pejorian, CC.