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Driving force: Sir Martin Sorrell

In a wide ranging interview with Des Dearlove, Sir Martin Sorrell talks of the importance of his MBA, his post-Blackberry reading habits ...

By Des Dearlove 01 June 2006

In a wide ranging interview with Des Dearlove, Sir Martin Sorrell talks of the importance of his MBA, his post-Blackberry reading habits, Bill Shankly, leadership and how he allocates his time.
Driving force Sir Martin SorrellSir Martin Sorrell is the chief executive officer of WPP. He invested in the company in 1986, establishing it as a holding company for building a marketing services group. Since then, WPP (the initials stand for Wire & Plastic Products) has grown to become one of the world’s leading communications services and advertising empires, valued by the UK stock market at £7.5 billion.

WPP’s 100-plus operating companies employ 91,000 people in 2,000 offices in 106 countries. They provide their clients with advertising, media buying, information and consulting, public relations, branding and identity, healthcare and specialist communications services. Sorrell himself is a highly influential and much-quoted voice in the advertising industry. He is seen by many as the driving force behind the consolidation in the communications industry over the past decade and a half.

An economics graduate of Cambridge University, Sorrell has an MBA from Harvard University. From 1977 to 1984, Sorrell was group finance director of the UK advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and was instrumental in its international expansion.

In 1997, he was appointed an Ambassador for British Business by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and subsequently appointed to the Office's Panel 2000 aimed at rebranding Britain abroad. In 1999 he was appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to serve on the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership and in 2000 was appointed a member of the Committee for the Special Olympics. He is a Governor of London Business School.

He talked to Des Dearlove about leadership and the role of business education.

What do business schools offer that on-the-job training doesn’t?

It comes down to this. If you put two candidates together and one has an MBA and the other doesn’t, then with other things being equal, I’d take the MBA.

It’s not a question of what business schools offer that on-the-job training doesn’t, it’s more a question that someone has taken the time and trouble to think about their skills and goals in the context of their career and life. It says a lot about their character and determination and attitude and commitment, which is good.

Some people argue that business acumen can’t be taught in the classroom.

I have some sympathy with that argument. But on the other hand I have much more sympathy with the argument that says it’s better to have someone who has been trained, who has taken a year or two out to think about these academic disciplines and think through case studies or the theory behind them, rather than someone who hasn’t.

What about leadership – can that be taught at business school?

I think not. But if you’ve got good leaders I think they can be even better if they’ve been to business school.

The other thing is how many times in your life do you take a year or two years out to spend thinking about these sorts of issues, or indeed your own career or life? The trouble with business school education is that it’s all focused on the MBA, which most people don’t do until they are in their late twenties.

At 21, you were very young to do an MBA. Would you recommend that?

I took my own MBA crazily early; I didn’t really have any experience. But I do think 27 is too old.

So what is the ideal age?

I would say a couple of years of experience is enough. If you went back and talked to people at Harvard Business School, the original deal with McKinsey and Goldman Sachs was we’ll take these people out of university after their first degree at 21, we’ll train them until they are 23 or 24 and then you take them for two years and give them back. That was the unwritten deal. I still believe that people coming straight out of university can make valuable contributions to classroom analysis in the case study method. There are a lot of people who are aged 21 or 22 who already have a lot of experience. They’ve had summer jobs and travelled a lot – all sorts of things.

So, to answer your question head on, I think the average age should be 23 or 24, so you had two or three years experience. The ideal in my view would be to take a year or two-year MBA in your early twenties, then when you were in your mid-thirties you’d do another three to six-month course called a PMD or Programme for Management Development, and then in your forties you’d do an AMP, an Advanced Management Programme. The thought that you should just do this once in your life is flawed thinking. Education is a continual process so to just concentrate it into a two-year MBA doesn’t make sense.

The MBA has been criticised recently, especially the Harvard case study method. Does that worry you?

I am a great believer in the case study method. It is a very robust approach. You have to present an argument for solving a business problem, or case, in front of 100 people in your class. It isn’t just about writing; it’s about presentation and verbal skills.

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