In the space of seven days the longest serving FTSE 100 CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, and the longest serving Premier League football manager, Arsene Wenger, have been asked to step down. It is a reminder that no matter the track record, few in high profile jobs – from business to sport to politics – get to choose their own exit.
In spite of their extraordinary successes, and these were ‘extra’ ordinary successes – Wire Plastic Products’ rise under Sorrell to be the world’s largest advertising company by the year 2000 and the Wenger revolution at Arsenal culminating in the club being unbeaten in 2003/4 Premier League season – it is the current set of leaner years that count. The Sorrell and Wenger magic formulas no longer seem to work.
So both men leave jobs that they have devoted themselves to and leave others to decide on their legacy. Whilst there is much admiration for their work, there is also a strong sense that they went on too long. With that length of tenure, neither leaves a successor.
Sorrell was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge and if you ask the Porter of the College about famous alumni, the first two names he will give you are Charles Darwin and Martin Sorrell. Darwin, of course, observed “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Sorrell and Wenger, over their respective 33 and 22 years, have shown an extraordinary responsiveness to change but, in the end, advances in the way advertising is sold and football is played have got the better of them. WPP and Arsenal will now need to evolve quickly under new management to regain former glories. The extent of evolution required will give strong insights into just how long these two overstayed and…whether in future years porters at Christ’s College are mentioning Sorrell as one of their famous alumni.