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Sir Martin Sorrell’s Advice to New Talent: Go Where the Growth Is



The S4 founder on why newly-minted and newly-redundant ad folk should focus on digital and data to futureproof careers and how the company is planning to boost diversity, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton

Sir Martin Sorrell’s Advice to New Talent: Go Where the Growth Is
“The advice I would give, for what it's worth, is go where the growth is,” says Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and executive chairman at S4 Capital. “Don't look at the world, like many of the people in our industry do, through rose-tinted spectacles, look at it with a telescope or binoculars. Look up; don’t look down at your boots.”

It’s a tough time to try to forge a career in the advertising industry. This summer thousands of graduates have found themselves stuttering before even getting started, as holding companies and major independents announce losses and redundancies. Come to think of it, it’s a tough time for established ad folk too, many suddenly finding themselves out in the cold – just this week Omnicom revealed they’d let 6,100 people go as revenue had shrunk 23% in Q2, and last week Wieden + Kennedy announced they’d be culling 11% of their global workforce. In the UK industry in particular, things are only going to get tougher – the government’s furlough scheme has staved off major job losses so far, but when that winds down in October there will be more hardship to come. Figuring out next steps can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis – and for those in need of a bit of perspective, there are few with as broad and comprehensive a view of where the industry is headed than Sir Martin.

“Learn Chinese. Despite what's going on between America and China, learn Chinese as well as English and maybe Spanish. Learn code and focus on the growing part of the industry,” he says, conceding that when it comes to the swathes of more traditional talent suddenly finding themselves in the job market, they should seriously consider re-skilling. “It's around content, digital advertising content, and it's around data and analytics and programmatic where the growth is. It's simple. I mean, it's not brain surgery.”

Though Sir Martin is known for his competitive and occasionally combative take on the holding companies, the prospect of swingeing job losses across the industry is something he reacts to sombrely and humanely. That being said he is quick to point out that S4’s headcount has grown during lockdown, from 2,400 to 2,600. Moreover revenue for the first five months of 2020 was up 14% on a like-for-like basis. 

“So being in the digital space is an advantage, clearly. We’re small, therefore we're more flexible and more agile, but one of the pieces of advice is to look for the growth. Within the industry, even if this year, digital will be flat in absolute terms… some people are saying it will be as much as 54% this year,” he says, advising talent to take inspiration from the tech giants – not just the Googles and Amazons, but the likes of Salesforce and Oracle. “I mean, those are most of the companies you should look at. And so there is opportunity. It's not all doom and gloom.”

The other part of the talent conversation is, of course, representation. When S4 published its diversity stats for the UK and US as part of its Black Lives Matters response, it emerged that across both markets the company was 19% Asian, 4% Black or African American, 10% Latinx and 63% White. Sir Martin says the company has a lot of work to do when it comes to representation of Black or African American people – it’s a demographic that is not present at an executive or senior level. Sir Martin says that S4 Capital has changed its hiring policies, and is committed to reflecting the demographics of local communities within local offices. 

“We've committed to reflecting our local community,” he explains. “We're changing our hiring policies. Now we're hiring. It's going to be very difficult for the holding companies to change their makeup. Their people of colour proportions and male-female proportions are worse than ours. It's going to be difficult for them to change it.”

Another big commitment is a four-year fellowship for Black graduates and school leavers. It’s inspired by the now-abandoned WPP fellowship that Sir Martin says he was very proud of – though this time around there will be some significant differences. Sir Martin says that to have any meaningful impact, such a scheme needs to go to schools, as universities ‘self-select’ and Black talent is underrepresented in the university population. The scheme will be up and running by the end of the year and will see recruits spend two year stints in different areas of the business.

“There's a lot of Black talent that you want to recruit straight from schools because they never got the opportunity. I mean, universities self-select and all the job programs that I'm hearing [about], the effective ones are going to be skills based, not qualifications based. So we'll try, and this is going to be very small scale. It's not big scale. I wish it was on a big scale, but eventually if we get some momentum and we grow, we'll get more,” he says. 

For agencies that have been slow to react to Black Lives Matter, Sir Martin says that there is no overstating how profound the impact on business will be.

“One important point is that clients now are increasingly demanding, from a procurement point of view, diverse teams. So it becomes a business imperative. They have no choice,” he says. “And it’s not only Covid-19 you have to worry about it's Black Lives Matter. Because I think there's been a fundamental change. This is not 1968, this is much more fundamental. So we're already seeing it, within weeks. We're already seeing clients pivot from a recruitment and from a procurement point of view. Those are the two big levers.”

Looking to the near-ish future, agencies talking about taking proactive anti-racist steps is a source of cautious, uncertain optimism. That cautious-but-realistic optimism is also Sir Martin’s position on the wider economy – so for young talent trying to find their first job in advertising and marketing, they should take hope in the prospect of parts of the economy bouncing – or slowly swinging – back. And longer term, there are parts of the world and industries with the potential for more substantial growth.

“It looks like we will be stuck with all this for at least a year, until everybody's vaccinated. Getting a vaccine, getting distributed are just the first two stages of getting everybody vaccinated. But on the assumption that happens by this time next year, which I think it probably will, then we'll definitely be through it. But in the meantime, it's going to continue to be quite difficult,” he says. “But I do think there are a V-shapes. There are U-shapes. There are L-shapes. There might even be chair-shapes for certain industries that disappear, but there are all these shapes, so I would go for the growth. Tech and healthcare is V-shaped. Online shopping is V-shaped. Entertainment and games is V-shaped. Digital is, if not V-shaped, certainly much more stable than free-to-air television or newspapers, you know, when you're cutting down trees and distributing newsprint. And then geographically, as well. I mean, there were parts of the world that will continue to grow: Asia Pacific, South America, Eastern Europe, Africa are all parts of the world that are going through difficulties because of Covid obviously, but will recover.”

And so, with all things considered, all of the challenges and uncertainties facing the industry, if Sir Martin was starting his career today, would he still want to go into the ad industry?

“My Dad said, ‘find an industry that you enjoy; find a company within the industry that you enjoy as well. You find fun, build a reputation in that company and that industry. And then if you fancy doing something on your own, don't do it on your own.’ There's no such thing as stress - [if] you're stressed, you're not having fun. We're having fun, certainly at S4; we're having fun because the businesses continues to grow even in a vicious recession.”
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