Martin Sorell
Martin Sorrell

The biggest takeaway from the Martin Sorrell mess at WPP is that a corporate board must be held accountable for the actions of a CEO, even if that person launched the company and served as its driving force. 

The Financial Times reported June 11 that Sorrell maintained a reign of terror management style, verbally abusing executive assistants and junior colleagues. 

One staffer called her salary “combat pay,” while another labeled it as “battle pay.” The doctor of another WPP staffer told her that she would be dead within a year if she continued working for Sorrell.

WPP’s “extracted” CEO Sorrell denies mistreating or verbally abusing anybody at the firm, though he admits that he can be difficult at times.

The WPP board also is responsible for the lavish compensation packages showered on Sorrell through the years and an employment contract that unbelievably lacked a “non-compete clause,” which allowed him to launch S4 Capital as a venture designed to mimic his masterpiece of WPP.       

How could this happen? Obviously, the board was asleep at the switch. 

Though Sorrell was synonymous with WPP, the board has a fiduciary duty to represent the interest of all shareholders and staff of WPP. 

WPP chairman Roberta Quarta gets a little slack because he only took the post in 2015.

Quarta told shareholders at the June 13 general meeting that directors take their jobs very seriously and are concerned about issues raised by the FT.

Actions, though,  speak louder than words. The investment and marketing communications community will be closely monitoring WPP’s board. Can it redeem itself?

WPP Co-COO Mark Read made a strong bid to assume Sorrell’s CEO post via a memo sent to staffers just ahead of the general meeting that stressed the ad/PR firm’s commitment to fostering working environments where staffers "feel safe and supported."

He wrote: "I feel we should remind ourselves of and reinforce the kind of values we want and need to have within every part of our business: values of fairness, tolerance, kindness and—again—respect.”

Read, and fellow Co-COO Andrew Scott are leading a review of WPP’s policies and code of conduct.

Good luck to both of them.