Sir Martin Sorrell stokes WPP tensions with raid on former firm

21 November 2018, 18:50 | Updated: 21 November 2018, 20:33

Sir Martin Sorrell is to poach a senior executive from WPP Group, the advertising empire he ran for more than 30 years, in a provocative move aimed at accelerating the growth of his fledgling venture.

Sky News has learnt that S4 Capital, Sir Martin's newly listed company, will announce on Thursday the appointment of Michel de Rijk as the chief executive of its operations in Asia-Pacific.

The recruitment of Mr de Rijk is the first direct arrival of a WPP manager at S4, and comes just three months after Sir Martin outbid his former employer in an auction of MediaMonks, a Dutch digital agency.

Mr de Rijk, who resigned as global chief growth officer of a division of WPP's media measurement unit last month, is expected to join S4 early next year.

His appointment is expected to irritate, rather than infuriate, Mark Read, Sir Martin's successor as WPP chief executive, who is expected to set out more details of his vision for the marketing services giant before the end of the year.

One person close to WPP said that Mr de Rijk had not been "in the top tier" of 150 executives who attended its most recent group-wide strategy session in New York.

The poaching of Mr de Rijk comes as Sir Martin closes in on S4's second acquisition by buying Mighty Hive, a US-based programmatic advertising business.

Sir Martin's return to the stock market, which came less than six months after his acrimonious exit from WPP, was accompanied by an insistence that he was not seeking to compete with the company that he built over three decades into the world's biggest ad agency group.

His takeover of MediaMonks nevertheless precipitated the launch of a legal battle in which WPP has threatened to strip Sir Martin of share awards worth tens of millions of pounds.

WPP warned its former chief that he was "likely to be in breach of his confidentiality obligations", a claim dismissed by Sir Martin.

That legal salvo from WPP exploded any semblance of a truce between the company behind giant advertising names such as J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy, and the man who became the longest-serving CEO in the FTSE 100.

In June, Sir Martin told an audience at the Cannes Lions advertising festival that he would not be in direct competition with his former employer.

"I've referred to it being a peanut," he said.

"Although it does occur to me that some people have peanut allergies."

Sir Martin remains a significant shareholder in WPP, with much of his wealth tied up in the stock of the company he took from a manufacturer of shopping baskets in 1985 to bestriding the global advertising industry.

By the time he stepped down in April, WPP was valued by the stock market at more than £16bn, although a series of client losses and accelerating shifts in spending among global advertisers have hurt its shares.

On Wednesday, WPP shares closed nearly 2% higher at 863p, giving the company a market value of £10.68bn.