Martin Sorrell was involved in an explosive confrontation last week in which the advertising mogul is alleged to have slapped the face of one of his old WPP protégés.
Lawyers from WPP wrote to complain about the altercation, marking a new low in Sir Martin’s relationship with the global advertising group he built over three decades.
Two witnesses have spoken of a heated incident last Thursday morning in the speakers’ room of the Web Summit in Lisbon, which involved Sir Martin and Jim Prior, the head of WPP’s Superunion brand agency network.
Sir Martin, 74, denies slapping Mr Prior and he and his lawyers have pushed back at the claims. Asked by text message whether there was any physical contact with Mr Prior, Sir Martin replied: “what do you mean by ‘physical contact’?” In response to the question “Did you touch his face at all?” Sir Martin texted: “I didn’t slap him as you suggested.”
Sir Martin stepped down from WPP, originally a wire basket maker he transformed into the world’s biggest advertising empire, after a bitter dispute over issues including his expenses and conduct.
Since then he has launched S4 Capital, a “new age” digital advertising enterprise employing almost 2,000 staff, and has stridently criticised his former colleagues at WPP over their business strategy and decision-making.
During the incident in Portugal, one witness recounted Sir Martin approaching Mr Prior, almost immediately slapping his cheek, then “launching into a tirade” about comments the Superunion executive had made to the press about his former boss.
Sir Martin was furious at Mr Prior for describing him as “a long, long, long way behind in the [WPP] rearview mirror” to the trade publication Campaign in August 2018. The headline described him as a “very small dot”.
Sir Martin said he “did take [Jim] to task about his previous comment that S4 Capital was a speck in the rearview mirror. I said when you are in a car crash, the speck catches up fast.”
Soon after the confrontation in Lisbon, WPP’s lawyers sent Sir Martin a written complaint about the alleged slap. WPP said in a statement: “We take our responsibilities to our people very seriously and have raised this with Sir Martin.” Mr Prior said: “I did see Martin in Portugal but I’m not commenting any further.”
Although Sir Martin remains a significant shareholder in WPP, former colleagues have despaired at how readily he has criticised the group since his departure.
As well as questioning the viability of the entire WPP business model, Sir Martin has called the process to appoint his successor Mark Read “a complete waste of time” and described a decision to sell part of a digital marketing company as “bordering on negligent”.
Even before Sir Martin left the company, senior WPP figures expressed concerns over an alleged pattern of verbal abuse to staff, notably assistants and junior colleagues. One employee working for Sir Martin told the FT last year that it was “like being in an abusive relationship”.
Sir Martin has denied all allegations of impropriety during his time at WPP, once dismissing the “scurrilous and salacious stuff that has been thrown around”.
Around 20 people were present in the room in Lisbon during the incident, which occurred shortly after 9.30am. A second witness confirmed there was swearing and shouting between “a taller man and a shorter one”. At 6ft 2in, Mr Prior is around seven inches taller than Sir Martin.
“There was certainly an altercation. It was heated. This was not a mild disagreement. There was only one [of them] shouting, swearing,” said the attendee.
Sir Martin said it was “a very brief exchange, with no injuries or complaints on either side”.
“This seems to us to be another attempt by WPP to undermine what we are doing at S4 Capital,” he added.
Within an hour of the incident, Sir Martin took the stage at the Web Summit to be interviewed before a packed audience on “building the next great ad empire”. Whilst describing his plans for his new venture S4 Capital, he mentioned “snotty remarks” made by his former colleagues at WPP.