Things are going well enough for Johnny Hornby that he is being touted as a possible successor to one of the world’s most famous chief executives. Yet the founder of The&Partnership doesn’t sound entirely thrilled by the prospect of replacing Sir Martin Sorrell at the helm of WPP.
“Who wants to be David Moyes?” he asks, a reference to the former Everton manager whose career headed south when he replaced Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2013. “If I took over, I wonder if Martin would sit in the stands scowling at me. He probably would.”
Of course, that Mr Hornby’s name is even in the frame is flattering for the 49-year-old. While his own company appears to be thriving, by his own admission it is a “fly on the side of the WPP elephant. You see the odds and it looks like the runners and riders for a race that isn’t going to get run for ten years. Martin looks like he’s about 30 [he is 71], he’s fit, brown, working out. It’s all a bit of fun, but there’s no vacancy.”
WPP owns 49 per cent of The&Partnership after Mr Hornby sold a stake in CHI, the advertising agency at the group’s heart, in 2007. Its clients include TalkTalk, Toyota and News UK, publisher of The Times.
If he is to take the top job at WPP one day, Mr Hornby says that he will have to prove that the unconventional approach of his own group offers the way forward for the wider advertising industry. Its so-called “full service” approach brings together services from media buying to data analytics to PR to creative into one team and a single bottom line. A combined team is put together for each client and often works in their offices rather than at those belonging to The&Partnership.
Data-driven advertising, or performance marketing, whereby companies use data to buy access to a smaller but more relevant audience than simply buying an advert during, say, the Champions League final, is an increasing proportion of its business. Ultimately, it allows businesses to invest only in the audiences that are likely to result in a sale.
“There always used to be that quote: ‘I know half of my advertising money is wasted, I just don’t know which half.’ I think we have to get to a point where increasing proportions of it are accountable. There have been real detractors who say: ‘Why should we have our creativity curtailed by data and proof?’ Well, we’re not fine artists. Yes, we all want to create stunning work, but we want to create interest that translates into [purchases]. We have brought the Maths Men together with the Mad Men.” Indeed, Mr Hornby suspects that June’s Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the United States may be good news for his business, hastening “the demise of the traditional Mad Men-style agency” as companies keen to cut costs get everything from one place rather than going to eight or nine different sources.
If he’s feeling bullish, it’s understandable because The&Partnership has just pulled off a coup, taking Toyota’s £240 million pan-European marketing business from Publicis. Having earlier helped Lexus, part of the Toyota group, to show off its street cred to a young audience helped to secure the deal. Its promotion of a Lexus project to build a working “hoverboard” secured more than 30 million views on social media and headlines around the world.
It shows, too, that the old rules of advertising don’t always apply now, Mr Hornby says. “When I started, they used to say: ‘What’s the central conceit?’ In other words, an advert has to tell a fib. This doesn’t have a conceit, we’ll just try to do something incredible and you see it warts and all. That is how the world works now.”
The son of a father who once ran the Royal Shakespeare Company and a mother who worked for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Mr Hornby went into business for himself in 2001 when he set CHI up with two colleagues. That he hasn’t looked back may offer another reason not to give him the WPP job. “Once you start your own business, you look back and think: ‘Why didn’t I do it earlier?’ I think I’d always be most suited to working for myself more than I would for a bunch of other shareholders.”
The high cost of bosses’ soaring wages
With the government outlining corporate reforms on pay, Johnny Hornby appears to be supportive of the principle (James Hurley writes). The wages of Sir Martin Sorrell, the man that Mr Hornby is tipped to replace on day, have often been seen as emblematic of the problem.
Sir Martin was handed more than £70 million in his 2015 pay deal and Mr Hornby admits he understands the anger over the package: “If I was him, I’m not sure I’d spend a lot of time trying to justify it in the media. For the people who have voted the way they have on both sides of the Atlantic [for Brexit and Donald Trump], it’s not the sort of figure people can do the sums on and think it’s fine.”
A former political campaigner, Mr Hornby believes that business is risking increasing public outrage by not addressing runaway executive pay. “Theresa May was probably not wrong to point out that the gap between the remuneration at the top of companies [and employees] has become outrageous.
“What was Peter Mandelson’s quote? ‘I’m intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’
“What we’ve all forgotten is there needs to some link between wealth creation and trickle down or whatever you want to call it, the feeling that everybody benefits.
“I understand if people go quite left-wing about it, as we used to do, or quite right-wing about it now and say: ‘That needs resolving.’ ”