WPP starts planning for Sir Martin Sorrell's successor

Advertising giant WPP examining candidates in case Sir Martin Sorrell leaves suddenly, annual report reveals

The hunt is on for a successor to Sir Martin Sorrell, boss of the UK's largest advertising group and one of the most powerful men in the global media industry, MediaGuardian.co.uk can reveal.

Although he has no immediate plans to step down, the firm's annual report and accounts reveals that WPP has activated plans to review who could take over if Sorrell leaves suddenly.

The issue is a live one because under the terms of his renegotiated contract, he can leave "at will' with no statutory notice period. The arrangement also means that the company can dispense with his services at a moment's notice.

WPP's annual report says that a comprehensive review was undertaken, "directed to the group's chief executive position".

The group discloses that non-executive directors and the chief executive exchanged views – "in a totally frank, highly specific manner – about candidates best qualified to succeed him." They looked at possible internal candidates, as well as individuals outside the company.

The annual report adds: "At other times, the non-executives, in the absence of the group chief executive, further discussed the succession candidates and process."

"We continue to believe strongly, however, that – lest public discussion of this subject foster speculation and distraction – the content of these ongoing deliberations should remain strictly confidential."

A company spokesman played down the discussions, saying that they were part of succession planning of the kind that takes place at many British companies. "Any responsible board should have plans like these constantly in place," said WPP.

Sorrell conceded this week that WPP would miss 2009 revenue targets in a tacit admission that the global downturn was worse than he predicted a few month ago.

The WPP boss, who has built the company into the international colossus it is today, reckons the group will be hit by a revenue fall in the "mid-single digits", revising his earlier forecast of a decline of 2%.

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Richard Wachman

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