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Why WPP CEO Sorrell Celebrates Winning an Award You've Never Heard of

Almost no one reading this post will care that ad agency holding company WPP (WPPGY) won Accountancy Age's "FTSE 100 Annual Report of the Year." You probably didn't even know that there is such a thing as an award for annual reports. People in the ad biz tend to care most about the Cannes Lions for creativity in advertising. But WPP CEO Martin Sorrell will take a moment to celebrate, as it's a contest he pays close attention to and he guards his victories in the annual report field jealously.

I found out about Sorrell's pride in his annual reports earlier this year when I wrongly suggested to him that his book didn't contain some information that it actually did, and received one of his trademark ear-burning tirades in response. ("Criminal!" I believe the epithet was.)

The point here is that unlike most CEOs, Sorrell sees his annual report as a new business marketing tool, something that potential clients, investors and acquirees can look at and feel reassured by. It's not just a rote set of mission statements, financial tables and stock photos of smiling employees, of the type favored by most companies. AA said:

The key to WPP's success is seeing the production of the report as integral to its business as one of the world's leading advertising and marketing groups.
That's why the printed version is a lush, dense graphic treat. At a hefty 196 pages, it needs to be: WPP consists of 150 distinct company brands, from famous names like Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather to obscurata such as BDGworkfutures, a design shop that services government agencies in the U.K. (And don't forget WPP itself, the shell company that grew into the largest ad agency holding firm in the world: "manufacturers of top quality domestic kitchen wireware products in stainless steel, chrome, nylon and plastic coating.") Compare it to Interpublic (IPG)'s annual report -- a study in dull, even though it's half as long.

WPP's online version is even more elaborate, and it begins with a a video section titled, "Ask Martin a Question." (You rather hope this is the WPP equivalent of Burger King's Subservient Chicken but in fact it's limited to five general questions about the state of WPP.) Notably, Sorrell opens the Q&A session by saying:

It is an award-winning exercise that we're particularly proud of. It's won awards in the last four or five years in most of the global competitions.
That's a contrast to his attitude toward the Cannes Lions, the awards that are handed out (conveniently) in the South of France every year. In 2010, he described them as "fun" (in addition to a more serious statement about trying to become the winningest agency group at the festival). The year before, Sorrell complained about the cost and quality of the entries.


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