Features/ Opinions

WPP and the foretold internecine implosion that could end the world’s biggest ad group

By Ikem Okuhu

Like it or not, Wire and Plastic Products (WPP for short), the world’s (former biggest advertising group) is heading south with the speed of a falling meteorite. The rainclouds of misfortune thickening against it cannot point to anything but a long-foretold unravelling.

First was the April 2018 disgraceful ouster of its founder and CEO, Martin Sorrell after 33 years, following allegations of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets, then there was the sack in March 2021, of Bharat Thakrar, the rambunctious Indian-Kenyan, who was recruited by Sorrell to drive its “Africa dominance” project through the institutional instrumentality of Ogilvy Africa.

The karma that appears to be hitting WPP every 35 months kept to its spooky schedule, returning in February 2024 as bruised and humiliated Bharat, in his return to fight for whatever he believes remains of his reputation, wrote WPP, accusing them of employing discriminatory “colonial” tactics during his outer. He is also demanding $ 24 million in damages.

Before this chain of events, which was, it must be added, heralded by a failed attempt to seize the Nigerian advertising market by sleight of hand, WPP was the biggest ad group in the world and was marshalling every weapon to conquer Africa. But whether you are looking at the developments from either the world of make-believe or from the examples of great men that travelled this earth before us, your conclusion has to be that having as sole aim to rule over the world would almost always end in disaster.

Starting with the world of make-believe, many of us should be familiar with the cartoon series, Pinky, and the Brain, produced by Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Brain, the alpha male character in this animated sitcom nurses a perennial ambition to take over the world, but a combination of his blind ambition and his innately dim-witted wife, Pinky, is always there to frustrate his efforts. In the real world, we are familiar with the ambitions of 17th/18th century French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his 20th century alter ego, Adolf Hitler of Germany. Both men were great warriors who conquered vast territories around them but were consumed by the same inordinate ambition to conquer the whole world.

When, in 1985, Martin Sorrell took controlling shares in a company that manufactured shopping baskets and teapots, many with conventional business mind sets never predicted the departure that the serial investor would take the business. Business consultants, if they were asked, would have prescribed growth paths along the traditional vertical and horizontal integration models, but that was not the sort of air the world-beater was breathing.

Through what looked like strange acquisitions, Sorrell steered WPP away from its factories to new areas of intangible services – marketing communication. From one acquisition to another merger and then to the organic birthing of new subsidiaries, WPP mutated its DNA, leaving its modest manufacturing beginnings to become the biggest advertising group in the world. Sorrell sat like a deadly spider in the middle of his company and was willing to snap at every opportunity that could add to the vast size of his endlessly expansionist empire. It was this drive that saw to the birthing of great businesses like; MediaCom, Essence, Mindshare, Wavemaker, Wunderman Health, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and the enlargement of Ogilvy, Grey Group VML, Young & Rubicam, WPP Group Inc., among others.

But he wanted more. Armed with the intelligence that the American and European markets were maturing and that Africa was destined to be the next economic growth frontier, Sorrell began to fashion his spears and cudgels to cut a sizeable swathe of the continent ahead of anybody else.

It was not like Sorrell did not have his fingers in the African advertising pie. A number of his subsidiaries were already playing big on the continent. Ogilvy was big in the South and Eastern African sub-regions. In fact, in Nigeria, many WPP companies such as Grey, Ogilvy, Y&R, Mindshare, Hill+Knowlton, and Burson Marsteller, among others, were already well established in the country. Although they operated as affiliation partners with indigenous advertising agencies, this relationship had already given a significant share of the Nigerian market to the global giant. Grey, for instance, through its affiliation with Insight Communications (InsightGrey) was the leading advertising agency in the country. Prima Garnet Communications, which was affiliated with Ogilvy Africa around 2008, was also big on the continent, handling big portfolios like Econet (and some of its various eventual manifestations) and some other rich portfolios.

With Africa yielding for WPP nothing worthy of mention in its annual financial filings, the question then is, “What happened to the growth frontier that Bharat Thakrar sold to Sorrell and WPP, and the dream of owning a sizeable chunk of the African advertising business?”

It is nice to remind us of the examples of Napoleon and Hitler mentioned earlier. At the height of their world-conquering adventures, both generals began their fall by failing in their attempts to conquer the vast lands of Russia during winter. In the case of Sorrell and WPP, the swan song appears to have started with their failure to conquer Africa. And it all started in Nigeria where its partner at the time, Prima Garnet Ogilvy resisted every attempt by the global giant to bully and bulldoze its way into the market.

It seems that even when Prima Garnet and Ogilvy commenced their affiliation arrangement in 2008, WPP already had its African strategy planned out and that did not include having the Nigerian agency as one of the key drivers. This is because at the time it was engaging the Lolu Akinwunmi-led agency in the affiliation deal, it was also perfecting plans to sell its African businesses to Ogilvy.

The chain of events started when WPP purchased 27.5 percent in ScanGroup, a company owned by Indian Bharat Thakrar. This was quickly followed by the acquisition of the Ogilvy business in East Africa in 2010 by the now WPP-enabled ScanGroup. According to reports by Business Daily, a Kenyan publication, the British advertising giant quickly increased its stake in Scanad to 29 percent in 2011, and by 2013, had soared its stake to 50.1 percent, enough to be in firm control, but with Thakrar as the lead.
WPP, it appears, was in hurried stealth. While ramping up its shares in Scanad, this company, through its new vehicle, Scanad was also spreading across Africa and in three years, had acquired operations in at least eight African countries, with the next biggest frontier being Nigeria.

Before the resistance put up by Prima Garnet, Scanad had bragged about how important it was to WPP’s future. In a report published on April 20, 2011, its CEO, Thakrar hinted that WPP had no option but to depend on its African expansion programme for growth.
“They are all (referring to WPP and other multinational companies) investing and have African strategies. They have nowhere else to grow so they are now looking at the [African] frontier markets very seriously,” he had told Reuters and went ahead to mention Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, and an unnamed francophone country as the next territories he would conquer.

But it appeared that, as it happened to both Napoleon and Hitler, Prima Garnet proved to be the Russian winter that halted the onslaught of the Sorrell-Thakrar army that was encircling Africa. An approach to acquire majority shares of the then Prima Garnet Ogilvy was resisted by the board of the Nigerian company, which was not comfortable with what was to become the fate of its staff in the proposed Scanad Nigeria era. Negotiations in London Joburg and Lagos yielded no fruits. Egged on by his Nigerian friends, Bharat Thakar attempted to force his way into the market in breach of the laws governing the foreign ownership of advertising agencies in the country.

With a fully equipped and staffed office in Victoria Island, Bharat was ready to dare the odds, which included the laws of Nigeria and the affiliation agreement between Prima Garnet and Ogilvy.

The critical aspect of this agreement was that while the affiliation subsisted Prima Garnet wouldn’t set up an agency anywhere an Ogilvy agency already existed. And Ogilvy or its affiliates wouldn’t set up in Nigeria. But this was breached when Bharat Thakrar set up Ogilvy in Lagos, employing a Nigerian as the supposed MD, but with an Indian who was the head.

It was therefore a case of the irresistible confronting the immovable. The board of Prima Garnet went to court and was able to stall the operations of Scanad and Ogilvy for years as the brutal court case lingered, until January 2018, when an announcement of a consent judgement was reached, and Prima Garnet settled out-of-court.
Before the out-of-court settlement, it was quite clear that the WPP-Ogilvy-Scanad venture in Nigeria had failed, and the global giant was secretly blaming Bharat for the bruises and financial losses amounting to more than $30 million.
Incidentally, it was in the same 2018, precisely in April, that Martin Sorrell was sacked from the company that he built and managed for 33 years, following allegations of staff bullying and patronage of ladies of easy virtue.

Interestingly, ‘Lolu Akinwunmi, who now serves as Group CEO of Prima Garnet Africa did warn of the bad fate that has befallen WPP.

In his book, SKIN FOR SKIN: The Prima Garnet Story, Akinwunmi was prophetic in his prediction of the fall of WPP. In Chapter 49 of the book he published in 2018, he had predicted, among other things, that:

1. WPP and Ogilvy would fragment

2. WPP and Ogilvy would be in decline and lose clients

3. WPP would gradually disintegrate.

4. Many WPP contraptions especially within the African region would come to an end

5. WPP’s main competitors globally would feed on its carcass. Some American corporate scavengers are seriously eyeing WPP

6. Every personality and organization involved in the failed enterprise would have their dates of reckoning.

Looking at the fate that befell both Sorrell, Thakrar, WPP, and the Ogilvy business in the African region, it sure looks like Akinwunmi would be crowned the  Advertising Prophet Elijah.
Its 2023 results show growth only in Britain and India, but there were significant declines in its operations in the United States, Germany, and China. Interestingly, no mention was made of its African operations in the reports sighted in the Financial Times and other global business publications.

With Africa yielding for WPP nothing worthy of mention in its annual financial filings, the question then is, “What happened to the growth frontier that Bharat Thakrar sold to Sorrell and WPP, and the dream of owning a sizeable chunk of the African advertising business?”
Or is the answer in the $24 million that the aging Indian now seeks as compensation for his ouster from Scanad?

Ikem Okuhu is a journalist, a Public Relations professional, brand strategist and teacher. With a career that traversed Print Media, Oil & Gas, Banking and entrepreneurship, Ikem is the author of wave-making book; PITCH: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths, a dispassionate exposition of the dos and don’ts of successful engagement in the marketplace, especially the Nigerian marketplace. He is the founder/publisher of BRANDish, Nigeria’s first nationally circulating Brands and Marketing magazine. He has also handled the PR and reputation management consultancies for a number of brands, businesses and public figures.

Kindly like, share and leave your comments.

Leave a Response