Sir Martin Sorrell called me “a germ carrier”. A liar. A disgrace to the Financial Times. Then, a couple of days later, he invited me to lunch. Surely some mistake? “I actually checked before writing,” said his aide. “Can you suggest some dates?”

Our quarrel was over an interview in November. It was one of many that Sir Martin has given blasting the “bozos” at WPP, a maker of wire shopping baskets that he took on a 33-year odyssey to become the world’s biggest advertising and marketing services group — before his acrimonious departure two years ago.

Sorrell is still livid about his exit and, when we spoke last month, he went further than usual: calling for the head of Mark Read, his former protégé and successor as chief executive. But after WPP’s biggest investor criticised the 75-year old’s “disgusting” campaign to undermine his old company, Sorrell decided that his remarks had actually been off the record. A volley of bad-tempered emails followed, rolling into the night.

Fiery emails are a Sorrell trademark. So is having the last word. The invitation was more of a surprise — and so intriguing. Sorrell loves to promote S4 Capital, his new and fast-growing digital advertising venture (he first suggested that we lunch at Burger King to celebrate S4 winning the “whopper” Mondelez, BMW and Mini accounts). But he would know, of course, that he would also face uncomfortable questions about why he left WPP, and the allegations over bullying and expenses that arose and were denied, as reported in a groundbreaking FT investigation. Why let an FT journalist — one he called a liar — rake over all that?

I put the question to Sorrell’s arch-rival Maurice Lévy, chairman of the Publicis advisory board, who has feuded with him since the heyday of the fax machine. “He is absolutely formidable,” Lévy says. “But with Martin you have one very simple rule: speak good, speak bad, but please, please speak of Martin. And if it is bad coverage, he will love it at least as much — maybe even more — because he would have a reason to fight.”

Sorrell arranges to meet me at the River Café, a beloved fixture of the London restaurant scene. It has become a regular haunt: I was told he dined here in early December while Read, Roland Rudd and Johnny Hornby — three WPP stars — all sat at separate tables around him. No words were exchanged. “Only noticed Roland,” says Sorrell, laughing at how the others must have “sidled in”.

I arrive to find him standing over a table by the kitchen, dressed in a fitted black jumper and jeans, trim and tanned. A bright orange face mask hangs on his neck, a bracelet of bone-coloured beads around his wrist. There was no word of reproach for me, just a broad grin at what was before him; one of London’s top truffle dealers had spread out two-dozen knobbly bulbs for the chef to take his pick.

“I’m trying to find out how much it all costs. She won’t tell me!” Sorrell says. “What makes a good one?” he asks. “Is it the bigger they are, the better they are?” That very point is to become a theme of our lunch.

“Whenever you start from scratch, whatever you own of the company, you always have an emotional connection, just like an umbilical cord,” Sorrell says. “Listen, to be blunt about it, certain people are trying to rewrite history. But they can’t. It will always be. It’s always going to be a part of you.”

I’ve not even set eyes on the menu by the time a white pizza arrives, topped with soothing white truffle. “Here we go, break off a piece,” Sorrell says. He ordered it to share almost as soon as we sat down, along with two Aperol sour aperitifs. The pizza dough is softer than I expected, but just as delicious as I hoped. Sorrell’s mask is still around his neck, positioned almost like a bib.

River Café, London

Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6

Pizzetta with white truffles £45

Carne cruda di vitello £25

Calamari ai ferri £24

Turbot trache with capers and lemon £45

Scallops seared with red wine and anchovy £42

Lemon tart £14

Tiramisu £14

Aperol sour x2 £28

Pinot bianco x2 £22

Double espresso x2 £9

TOTAL (inc service): £303.50

Our lunch is already moving at a brisk Sorrell pace. He expounds on dealmaking over Zoom, the World Economic Forum, and mentions, ever so casually in passing, that he recently spoke with my boss. He has travelled during the pandemic — to the US and Italy — but nothing like before. “Not getting into a hotel room at 11 o’clock at night and then taking a 4am conference call. You feel much better for it,” he says, folded pizza in hand. I reach for the Aperol.

The River Café opened on the bank of the Thames in 1987, the year of Sorrell’s greatest triumph: the audacious takeover of J Walter Thompson, a New York advertising institution that was 13 times the size of WPP. To the pooh-bahs of Madison Avenue, it felt like an invasion by a puckish number-cruncher from London. “He doesn’t have advertising in his veins,” scoffed Philip Geier, then chief executive of the Interpublic advertising group. “But he wears a green eyeshade well.” (“Cheap shot!” protests Sorrell.)

It was an extraordinary feat for a Kentish company that was manufacturing rodent cages when Sorrell and his erstwhile partner Preston Rabl took a stake in it in 1985. Sorrell had spent time working with entrepreneur James Gulliver, sports marketing pioneer Mark McCormack and, most importantly, as financial director for the acquisition-hungry Saatchi & Saatchi group. WPP was his vehicle to build something himself. The Sorrell empire expanded, overstretched, almost buckled under its debts, recovered and came into its pomp during the 2000s, spanning 400 agencies in 112 countries. Its many threads converged on a handsome Mayfair townhouse where Sorrell presided.

Sorrell puts down his menu. For starters he goes for veal “cruda”, while I opt for chargrilled squid. As he orders two glasses of crisp white wine, I notice that Sorrell has barely touched his aperitif. He glides into a discussion about S4 Capital, the digital-only ad group he launched weeks after leaving WPP. It promises a “new age, new era” approach and makes good on the claim, with a director-cum-hipster on the board who, Sorrell boasts, “has the longest beard in the FTSE-150”.

£2.7bn Market value of Sorrell’s S4 Capital after two years

Expectations were high, and Sorrell has smashed them within two years. S4’s business is still tiny compared with WPP (revenues of £215m in 2019 vs WPP’s £13.2bn). But S4’s £2.7bn market value is, remarkably, a quarter of WPP’s. Sorrell bristles at people who call S4’s digital content arm MediaMonks “another production company”, or say that S4’s other division MightyHive is “just a reseller” of Google’s automated ad platforms. S4’s talent “is as good, maybe in some respects better” than the formidable team he worked with at Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1980s. Quite a claim.

Just as his start-up WPP overtook Saatchi & Saatchi as the world’s biggest advertising group, is the aim for S4 to outgrow WPP? “I agree with Maurice Saatchi: you build the best and you become the biggest. We have limitless ambition. We want to create a new model.”

Sorrell takes a forkful of veal as we turn to his upbringing. The short version is that he hails from the comfortable middle classes of postwar London, attending the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, the University of Cambridge and then Harvard Business School. But that misses his edge.

Sorrell’s father Jack, the son of Jewish immigrants to east London, left school at 13, changed his surname from Spitzberg after reading Warwick Deeping’s novel Sorrell and Son, and became a successful electronics retailer. Sorrell’s mother Sally, who lost her elder son in childbirth, doted on him to a fault. Nothing was taken for granted. At home furniture would be covered in plastic lest it be damaged from use. “If you didn’t have anything, you valued everything,” says Sorrell. “Anything not wrapped up in tinfoil or plastic was put in the fridge.”

Sorrell was especially close to his father and treasures his “letter of wishes”, which includes homespun advice and one abiding mystery. It is dated March 1988 and begins: “I’ve noticed a change in my condition”. Yet Jack didn’t admit to an illness until 10 months later. “I’ll never know whether he was so emotional when he wrote the letter that he mistook the date, or whether he knew and just said nothing. He wasn’t one to believe in doctors,” he says.

He recounts cutting short a trip to New York, just after acquiring Ogilvy & Mather, when he heard that Jack had only a week to live. “He was amazed to see me,” says Sorrell. “It was nine o’clock in the morning. He died at six.” Sorrell pauses. His eyes slip into a glassy blur. He sits up, trying to compose himself. The silence lingers. “Sad time, terrible,” he says.

The emotion somehow clears the air. Sorrell is more his rat-a-tat-tat self. We’re on our main course, and I’m relishing the savoury tang of my last bits of scallop. We turn to WPP and what might have been. During his last year or two in charge, performance was flagging. A digital revolution was eating into its traditional business. The question of succession, meanwhile, was left unanswered. Wasn’t it the perfect time to find a buyer?

Ever the contrarian, Sorrell dismisses the idea, but then embarks on an anecdote of how he almost did sell to Warren Buffett in 2012. Over lunch at a Hyatt hotel in Washington, Buffett made his offer: 925p a share, roughly a 20 per cent premium. “I always remember he had a cheeseburger and spilled tomato ketchup or mustard all over his tie,” he says, sliding flesh from a side of grilled turbot. “I said: ‘What about due diligence?’ He said, ‘No need. I’ve read your annual report.’ Incredible! I admire him enormously.” Sorrell was minded to sell but the $17bn offer wasn’t quite enough.

With pudding ordered, I turn to the tougher questions: the exit from WPP, or what some call Sorrell’s downfall. The details are tangled. Sorrell has struggled to shake off reports that he verbally abused staff, and blurred the lines between personal and company expenses. A whistleblower claimed to have seen Sorrell enter a brothel in Shepherd Market, Mayfair; WPP hired lawyers to investigate whether he used company cash.

Sorrell strenuously denies any serious misconduct or breaking company rules and he was, formally, a “good leaver” when he departed WPP. I wanted to ask whether his behaviour was appropriate. Does he realise he scares people, that his staff felt bullied? “It is mythology! I’m a cuddly teddy bear.” Is his temper a weakness? “What temper?” How about those emails to me? “God forbid I should disagree with you!”

“I’m driven,” he finally says. “Let me put it mildly: I’m extremely disappointed if we don’t reach [our] objective. That’s all it is.” I think back to an FT report that quoted an employee saying working for him was like “an abusive relationship”.

We move to expenses. I raise some allegations made in press reports and from people familiar with the dispute. Did he repay some $600,000 of claimed expenses to WPP? “No, no, no.” For skiing lessons? “No.” Books for his daughter’s christening? “No.” Lunches during a holiday on St Bart’s? “The answer is: you have to look at the context,” he says, before explaining the host was Philippe Dauman, the former Viacom chief executive.

Did he visit 50A Shepherd Market? Sorrell folds his arms. Would visiting a prostitute constitute misconduct for a chief executive? “They conducted a full investigation. You saw the result. I was a good leaver.” Did he go there? “They conducted a full investigation. I decided to leave on the basis of how they handled it.” Does it matter if you did? “It’s not a question of whether it matters.”

I notice his tiramisu has somehow almost disappeared. He reaches over to his leather tablet case and presents a Bloomberg graph of WPP’s stock and its decline since he left. But, I ask, isn’t that just his legacy? “They can’t get away with that! They made a mistake,” he says, sitting upright. “At what stage do they take responsibility? They have an incredibly valuable series of assets. Why haven’t I sold my shares? Because I think the value — the break-up value — is significantly greater than the market value.”

Line chart of Share prices rebased to Apr 2018 (Sorrell’s departure from WPP) showing S4 Capital’s rapid growth under Sorrell

Such attacks made some old WPP colleagues furious. To them, it is as if Sorrell is trying to repair his reputation, and ego, by trashing their company. I pose a question suggested by an unnamed rival: if WPP is Sorrell’s baby, why is he treating it badly simply because it is living with a stepfather? “Tough love,” replies Sorrell. “You can tell Maurice Lévy, it is called tough love.”

He sounds like a man still intent on building a legacy, not reflecting on one. “Let’s see what happens,” he laughs. “It’s a long game. There are many moves on a chessboard yet.”

Wouldn’t it be more classy if he just held his tongue on WPP and made S4 a success? “There are historic precedents, that’s what I will leave you with,” he replies, with a cryptic twist. Does he mean exiled founders returning to take the helm? “You’re the journalist, you search through history.” I wonder whether he can mean Steve Jobs’ return to Apple.

Sorrell’s wine is virtually untouched but we have eased into two coffees. He is relaxed and scanning the political horizon. Facebook, antitrust, Brexit, China. We touch on his recent separation from Cristiana Falcone Sorrell. At £30m, Sorrell’s first divorce settlement set a legal record in 2005; his second is expected to be even bigger. During the divorces, both wives made caustic remarks about their estranged husband. “It’s not taking a lot of time,” says Sorrell. “But it’s painful.”

On a lighter note, I ask why, in recent press interviews, his favourite film changed from Raging Bull to Barry Lyndon. Sorrell offers no real reason, but glows when I read a quote from the original novel. “Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim,” writes Thackeray. “Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.” It seems to capture him well.

Our time is up. “I hope it isn’t too expensive,” Sorrell says, as he stands to leave. Don’t worry, I reply — it’s on expenses. Sorrell can’t resist one final overture to the journalist about to write about him. “Stay in touch,” he says, swivelling around. “Next deal . . . ” He points his finger like a gun, and winks.

Alex Barker is the FT’s global media editor

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