"Some people are good at starting things; some are good at running them; it's not often that people can do both," said Sir Martin Sorrell speaking at Birmingham City Business School's Most Admired Leaders lecture.

Martin Sorrell is one of the few.

At age 40, after 'an attack of the andropause', he used funds he'd built up whilst working at Saatchi, borrowed £250k and privately purchased 29.9% of WPP, a quoted shell company, Wire and Plastic Products.

Over the next three years, from 1985, he acquired 18 businesses including hostile takeovers of giants, J Walter Thompson in 1987, and Ogilvy & Mather, in 1989.

Since then his business has become one of the world's leading communications services and advertising companies valued on the UK stock market at £5 billion, with £18bn revenues in a global industry valued in 2010 at $86,758bn.

At 68 he appears in great shape, and my own esteem for him has risen considerably since hearing his remark "Women are better in advertising than men", before adding a well-judged rider: "men are as good as women."

He spoke highly of two formidable women who've held important roles at WPP - Shelly Lazarus, who's recently stepped down as CEO of The Ogilvy Group, 'a great communicator and networker', and Charlotte Beers, currently doing a great job heading up CSR.

As a former director of a FTSE 250 business, I was impressed to see women making up 32% of WPP's board as one of just 10 FTSE 100 companies where more than 20% of the board is made up of women.

Sir Martin's views contrasted with those expressed by Justin King of Sainsbury's at the CBI Annual Conference.

He, like others at that event, did not believe in setting targets for getting women on to boards, let alone quotas, although he did say he could see, a 'brilliant woman' doing his job 'in about 20 years time'....

The post Lehman crisis of capitalism was clearly weighing on Sir Martin's mind as he was reading Daniel Pinto's book, The Clash of Capitalisms.

According to the blurb this calls for the reinvention of the 'magic formula of government + business + market, on which the strength of western capitalism rested', whilst expressing some 'controversial, politically incorrect solutions (particularly regarding executive remuneration packages)'.

On this subject Sir Martin was quick to defend his own position, receiving £17.6m remuneration last year, stating: "I get some criticism for my pay, but I believe you should have a meaningful stake in the business or entity you run.

"Everything I have in terms of my net worth is in WPP. The top 25 people in WPP do this, they have to own shares for 5 years and contribute money to purchasing that stock."

He shared with us ten insights from his business experience.

1) Have a clear and simple strategy: WPP is about focusing on new markets, new media, data investment and horizontality with clarity about current and target market share.

2) Business structure enables delivery; management delivers: - to do so management needs to be accountable and properly incentivised, with 'skin in the business'. 90% of his own pay was linked to targets such as total shareholder return and earnings.

3) The rise and rise of the web: "As far as I am concerned Larry (Page) and Google are all about the disintermediation of the legacy business. The web has, and will continue to create new business models and an attractive destination for consumers.

Web-based businesses are very attractive to younger people who like the informality, the highly networked and collaborative nature of these businesses.

4) Greater retail power: "As retailers continue to face a tough, competitive environment, they are likely to lean harder on manufacturers, especially consumer packaged goods (CPG). Over the last 20 years retailers have had tremendous power over manufacturers.

Manufacturers have had their margins squeezed by the retailers and the consolidation in advertising reflects this. Retailers have put manufacturers under pressure and kept inflation under control.

They have tremendous market intelligence. The Tesco subsidiary Dunhumby is the best source of purchase data." (The company itself claims to have details for every consumer in the UK at their home address, across a range of demographic, socio-economic and lifestyle characteristics with intelligent profiling and targeting using a software system, Zodiac which can rank consumer enthusiasm for promotions, brand loyality and whether they are a 'creature of habit'.)

"All this implies differentiation is very important, and more and more so," said Sir Martin, adding, "companies need to earn the right to charge a premium for a brand."

5) Growing importance of internal communications: Getting internal messages aligned so that people understand, 'live and breathe' the brand, speaking positively about where they work, the vision and strategy of their business, has growing importance in attracting and retaining talent.

6) Over-capacity in production and shortage of human capital: Automotive is still able to produce 80m units annually with the Chinese car market now the largest in the world producing 16m cars a year ahead of the USA at 15m units. India had been expanding their capacity with investment by TATA in the Nano, for example, and Germany was still strong.

Industry consolidation would continue. In advertising Publicis and Omnicom (POG) had merged to form the largest advertising group with £23bn of revenues. However, allied to this there was a shortage of human capital aggravated by an ageing population. Cities were growing in importance with 50% of our population living in Cities now, predicted to increase to 70% by 2030 according to IBM Smarter Cities.

7) The drift to East and South: "The West is not in the 'box seat' anymore. China is."
We were witnessing the rise of China, the BRICs and the Next 11, or N-11, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. The South East includes Africa, with the Southern axis of opportunity including Latin America and Brazil which hosts the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

8) Slimmer global corporate centres with greater local focus: Two big companies he had been spoken to recently had told him that they had slimmed down their HQs whilst expanding their local centres which needed to understand and be in touch with the local consumer and trends.

9) Power of finance and procurement: "We have had 20 years without inflation and the driving power has been finance and procurement. Half the CEOs on the FTSE 100 are former FDs or accountants. Post Lehman with so much risk aversion there has been a focus on cost cutting rather than growth. This focus needs to shift. Advertising is about stimulating the top line and I think this cutting has gone too far."

10) Growth of government: "Anyone who thinks that government will go away post Lehman is missing the point. Government as an investor and communicator is becoming more and more important. If you're in the business of building a lot of brands in products and services then you won't do anything to offend your stakeholders and customers.

Doing good is good business. If you're looking to engage with talent then you need a long term strategy. Government is a big advertising customer, especially in the year before an election."

  • Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement, Birmingham City University