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