The NS Interview: Martin Sorrell

“People say that the aim is to make money. They’re wrong” - Martin Sorrell, businessman.

You've been running WPP for 25 years. Do you have a retirement plan?
People who head businesses are usually in two groups - people who start things but can't run things and people who run things but can't start them. I try to do both. Bill Shankly said: "Football's not a matter of life and death; it's much more important than that," and that's WPP. It's difficult for me to envision doing anything different.

Is it true you made £60m over five years?
No, it was over 15 years. At WPP, since 1991-92, I and others have made investments in the business over five-year rolling periods. These are stock plans, not options: like Warren Buffett, we don't believe in giving management an option over the company stock for ten years, at no cost.

Would you say you're worth it?
Well, that's not for me to say.

Are you optimistic about our economic future?
I can't be sure, but I don't think that there'll be a double-dip recession worldwide. I think the coalition government's made a good start. This may be a honeymoon period and maybe events will catch up with them. But I think they have done the right thing in terms of trying to address the deficit issue.

Why should the public sector and poorest people pay for the sins of bankers?
When you look at the sub-prime mortgages and how that tied in to Lehman and associated problems, it's not solely due to the bankers.

According to a study, bankers will be paid £7bn in bonuses this year. Does that bother you?
I believe in the market economy. It depends on the results, what people have done. But I think it's dangerous once you start to interfere with the system through excessive regulation, particularly in industries that are highly mobile. You'll just move people to other parts of the world.

What's your view of the public sector?
What we've seen over successive administrations, and particularly under Gordon Brown, is an expansion of the public sector that has been extreme.

And you think that needs changing?
It's about rebalancing. That sector cannot produce the growth we need in future. It's the private sector that's going to have to do that.

Did you vote Conservative?
That's between me and the ballot box - none of your business!

How do you think George Osborne is doing as Chancellor?
I think it's early days. So far, so good.

What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur starting out in this climate?
Be persistent. Be determined. And realise that you have to have some luck. You've got to have fun with what you do. People say that the aim
is to make money. They're totally wrong. You do it because it's fun.

What is your favourite gadget?
The iPad is extraordinary. It's the first iteration and they've sold three to four million. It's incredible. And the free applications are amazing. Steve Jobs is the quintessential example of innovation and branding.

Can big traditional broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 survive?
They are very challenged. But I think it's more the newspaper groups; print is really challenged. People like Rupert Murdoch understand that it's about the communications business, about geography, about consumer insight.

People describe you as the leading Jewish businessman in the country.
I have always objected to that. People don't talk about the leading Catholic businessman.

Shimon Peres said that the English are anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli. Do you agree?
I think it's much less than it was. I wouldn't agree with Shimon Peres. One of the UK's greatest strengths is its diversity.

Have you experienced anti-Semitism yourself?
I remember while at school being on the bus to a cricket game. A kid turned around to me and said, "You know, Sorrell, that you're different," and I said, "Why's that?" and he said, "Because you're Jewish." I always remember that.

What book are you reading now?
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - by Stieg Larsson.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
At Harvard Business School, there was this exercise with three circles - "family", "career" and "society" - and balancing the intersections of these three things. I'd like to forget the times when I've been unable to balance those things.

Are we all doomed?
No. I think in times of adversity the world is full of tremendous opportunities.

Defining moments

1945 Born in London
1975 Joins Saatchi & Saatchi and is nicknamed "the third brother"
1985 Leaves Saatchi & Saatchi to take over WPP
1987 Launches "hostile" takeover of the J Walter Thompson ad agency
1989 Buys Ogilvy & Mather for $825m, making it the biggest ad agency in the world
2000 Is knighted for his services to the communications industry

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.