WPP, the world’s biggest advertising company, entered uncharted territory on Monday without its founder Martin Sorrell whose departure has left it rudderless at a time of swirling industry change.
Shares in the group fell 4 percent after Sorrell, the driving force behind 33 years of dealmaking and relentless expansion, stepped down on Saturday after the board investigated an allegation of misconduct.
The sudden departure of Sorrell, the face of the company since he founded it in 1985, has sparked questions as to whether the holding group can remain in its current form of employing 200,000 people in more than 400 agencies across 112 countries.
It has also prompted fears that without Sorrell’s contacts it could lose clients and talent while it seeks out a new CEO.
“Sorrell’s departure is negative considering … how instrumental he has been in assembling the assets WPP has today,” said Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser.
WPP said that chairman Roberto Quarta will step up to be executive chairman while its digital boss Mark Read and Andrew Scott, the chief operating officer of WPP Europe who oversaw acquisitions, become joint chief operating officers.
They inherit a difficult task, with WPP in March publishing its weakest results since the financial crisis as consumer goods groups such as Unilever and P&G cut spending and other customers jumped ship.
The industry is also battling the might of Google and Facebook, which dominate the online advertising market, and watching nervously as consultants such as Accenture move more aggressively into the sector.
The changing dynamics have meant the previous idea of building marketing groups up to offer advertising, branding, planning and research on a global scale — championed by Sorrell and followed by others — is now under threat as clients want more nimble relationships in a digital age.
Many are starting to ask if they can do things differently — creating their own content to place directly on online platforms or working with smaller ad groups.
Analysts are already saying that WPP’s market research arm Kantar could be sold off for around 3.5 billion pounds ($5 billion), compared with the group’s overall market value of 14.5 billion pounds, and question whether there are synergies from holding PR assets like Finsbury.
“We think the lack of operational direction for the group and potential for client losses are clear downside risks over the short to medium term,” Deutsche Bank said.
“The potential for asset sales or even a break-up may provide some support, but these are highly uncertain and unlikely to take place in the near-term.”
Sorrell, 73, did not have a non-compete clause and could set up a new advertising business. He owns 1.4 percent of WPP, according to Thomson Reuters data.