A loyal chauffeur brutally sacked, a chance sighting by two off-duty staff… and Sorrell’s downfall

It was a chance sighting a year ago by two off-duty employees of Sir Martin Sorrell’s multi-billion-pound advertising empire WPP that was to culminate in his explosive exit from the company he founded 33 years ago.

Tuesday June 6, 2017, was a grey afternoon and a light drizzle was falling on Mayfair. But storm clouds were gathering on the horizon for Sir Martin personally.

The father-of-four’s alleged visit to a Mayfair brothel came the day before a tumultuous annual general meeting of WPP at which a fifth of the advertising firm’s investors voted down their chief’s astonishing £48million pay package.

Sir Martin quit multi-billion-pound advertising empire WPP in April this year, after alleged misuse of company funds and ‘personal misconduct’ – which he strenuously denies

Ever since Sir Martin quit the firm in April this year, after alleged misuse of company funds and ‘personal misconduct’ – which he strenuously denies – speculation has been rife in the City about what he was accused of doing.

Yesterday it was claimed WPP had been investigating whether Sir Martin had spent £300 of company money on a prostitute.

The Financial Times reported that on June 6 last year, two employees of WPP, based in Farm Street, Mayfair, met for a drink in nearby Shepherd Market.

The area is one of London’s oldest red-light districts and was where Lord (Jeffrey) Archer infamously met prostitute Monica Coghlan.

Workaholic who took home £70m in ONE year 

Three decades at the top of the world’s largest advertising agency saw Sir Martin Sorrell amass a vast fortune.

But his years as one of Britain’s highest paid executives also gave the 73-year-old little time – or inclination – to spend his estimated £495million wealth.

A self-confessed workaholic, Sir Martin famously declared: ‘I don’t relax. I can’t even spell the word “hobby”.’ The son of an electronics retailer, he studied at Cambridge and Harvard before going to work for Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1970s.

In 1985, aged 40, he took control of Wire & Plastic Products, which made wire shopping baskets, and turned it into a marketing company. As chief executive he created an advertising empire with 200,000 employees in 112 countries and a turnover of £15.3billion. Its success was reflected in his pay and bonuses, which totalled £70.4million in 2015 – then believed to be the highest pay package in British corporate history.

Since 2010, he has pocketed more than £230million in pay and bonuses, and a long-term incentive scheme means he will receive another £20million from WPP over the next five years – despite his resignation and the misconduct inquiry.

The two colleagues were sitting outside a bar when they allegedly witnessed their boss going into Flat 50a. Afterwards, one of them took a photograph of the location, the FT reported.

It is unclear whether the two WPP employees mentioned anything about their alleged sighting to the company at the time.

But later it became central to the firm’s investigation into its chief executive’s alleged misconduct. In the early months of 2018, one of the employees broke their silence and confided to a senior colleague about what they had allegedly seen that evening in June 2017, said the FT.

Exhausted chauffeur fired for wanting to rest

One catalyst for the investigation was apparently the firing of Sir Martin’s long-serving chauffeur. The popular driver had worked for the millionaire chief executive for some 15 years until he was abruptly sacked last October.

The unnamed chauffeur used to ferry Sir Martin around London in a Range Rover and was also often on call for his wife Cristiana too.

One night last October, he had allegedly been working for 12 hours without a break when he was asked to pick up Lady Sorrell from the exclusive restaurant Mayfair Isabel and run her back to the couple’s £5million Belgravia home.

According to sources who spoke to the FT, it was already 2am and the driver was told he would have to be back in place for another job at 7am.

It was said that he refused to pick up Lady Sorrell, saying he would be too tired and unsafe on the road if he only got two or three hours’ sleep.

The Sorrells fired him the next day, the FT claimed.

The driver was a popular figure at WPP’s Farm Street offices, said to be well liked by the personal assistants who helped Sir Martin maintain his exhausting round-the-clock schedule.

His dismissal was ‘met with shock and sadness across the executive suite’, the newspaper said – as well as a resolve to act. The alleged shabby treatment of the chauffeur was apparently a key factor motivating a future whistleblower.

A fiery temper and four-letter outbursts

Another factor was said to be Sir Martin’s alleged fiery temper. The ad boss built his multi-billion-pound empire virtually from scratch and is said to work day and night, quick-firing off emails and micro-managing his sprawling business, which has 200,000 employees across the globe.

But he is known to expect his employees to match his pace and the role of Sir Martin’s executive assistants (EAs) has allegedly proved particularly ‘punishing’.

The chief executive’s six EAs earn around £80,000 apiece but one described her salary as ‘battle pay’, in light of the verbal abuse she has to put up with.

‘He was brutal and inhuman in how he dealt with his assistants,’ one former executive told the FT. ‘He would say “you’re f***ing idiots, what’s f***ing wrong with you”… He had a real dark side.’

A former WPP board member said being an executive assistant was ‘a pretty thankless task’, a role that another employee likened to ‘being in an abusive relationship’, with Sir Martin presenting a charming image to the outside world that was at odds with the one that was witnessed by staff. The chief executive apparently called one elderly colleague a ‘pudding’ and described others as ‘bozos’.

Executive assistants working closely with Sir Martin did not typically last longer than 18 months because the job was too tough, according to the newspaper. One ex-employee told the FT: ‘After a year, my doctor told me that if I continued I would be dead.’

Sir Martin is said to accept that he can be difficult at times but strongly denies mistreating, abusing or bullying staff and his supporters said many people have worked for years at WPP, and that Sir Martin has received dozens of messages of support.

Bewildering expenses claims 

Another factor explaining the unease in the WPP boardroom was the alleged ‘blending’ of Sir Martin’s expenditure on his corporate and private life – not to mention that of his wife.

The City veteran is described as a perpetual motion machine, working all hours – including during holiday – and constantly responding to emails.

His business took him all over the world as he mixed with the global elite. He was among the guests at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in Windsor last month.

Lady Sorrell was often expected to be at Sir Martin’s side at events with clients and their spouses, but some claimed it was occasionally difficult to discern when he and his wife were travelling for business or pleasure.

The blurred lines between the spending for corporate and personal purposes was said to have led to ‘fierce arguments’ at head office about which items required personal reimbursement by Sir Martin.

In 2015, Sir Martin drew attention for chalking up £274,000 in travel expenses for his wife, who is a senior City executive in her own right, with high-flying roles at the World Economic Forum, telecoms giant Viacom and the cosmetics firm Revlon.

After 2015, WPP stopped providing travel expenses for Lady Sorrell, 43 – Sir Martin’s second wife – who gave birth to the couple’s daughter in November 2016.

Despite a generous benefits and pay package that made him the country’s best-paid chief executive in 2015 – earning £70million that year – the FT said it had been ‘common for Sir Martin to request cash for day-to-day expenses’.

The newspaper claimed this had ‘long puzzled head office staff’, who were aware his restaurant, drinks, transport, laundry and gifts expenses were typically put on the company account or credit card.

It was ‘all the more puzzling’, said the FT, because Sir Martin was not always required to provide receipts for the cash he received. In covering the globe for his company, Sir Martin was bound to rack up significant expenses as part of his duties. Auditors always signed off WPP’s accounts and insiders insisted that ‘great care and attention’ was always taken by the company and the chief executive over his expenses and that he ‘denies there was any misuse of funds’.

How whistleblower sparked investigation  

All of the above served as the backdrop to the investigation by WPP into its own chief executive’s alleged use of a prostitute.

Sir Martin had long dominated the company he founded, but 2017 witnessed the downfall of a succession of powerful men in the media and Hollywood.

In January this year, it was revealed that WPP had sponsored the Presidents Club charity dinner at which high-powered businessmen were accused of sexually harassing ‘hostesses’ hired to be groped at the event.

Amid widespread criticism of men’s behaviour at this event, one WPP employee decided to turn whistleblower to reveal what they had witnessed last June in Shepherd Market – their boss allegedly visiting a brothel. The allegation was passed up the chain to WPP’s chairman Roberto Quarta, who set up a subcommittee that eventually called in a Washington law firm, WilmerHale, to investigate.

The whistleblower provided the photo of 50a Shepherd Market. Sir Martin was interviewed for two hours by WilmerHale partners on March 29. Believing it was a routine matter, he did not have a lawyer present, according to the FT.

On April 13, WilmerHale’s findings – considered so sensitive that a written report was not provided – were revealed verbally to the board.

Friends of Sir Martin said he was not given the full picture. The investigation concluded that there was no proof of misuse of company funds, that the amounts of money in question were ‘wholly immaterial’ and that no other WPP employee was affected.

The board apparently concluded the matter was largely a personal issue for Sir Martin.

Yet the fact that the investigation had been carried out was leaked to The Wall Street Journal and Sir Martin is said to have concluded that his position as CEO was untenable, resigning the following day.

WPP has said it would be breaching the Data Protection Act to reveal the details of Sir Martin’s departure, and his spokesman has said he signed a non-disclosure agreement ‘which he has adhered to and will continue to adhere to’. The spokesman added that Sir Martin ‘strenuously denies’ the allegations.

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