The referendum wasn't just an economic issue, it was an emotional one - Sir Martin Sorrell

The WPP boss and Lord Browne tell MT why the Remain campaign got it wrong and why they feel Brexit is bad news.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2016

‘I’m sure the British stiff upper lip will be as stiff as possible and I’m sure we will rebound from any adversity that comes from a vote to leave,’ Sir Martin Sorrell said in typically brusque style, when asked at MT's Future of Work conference how the public would react to a Brexit.

With business head firmly screwed on (does he ever take it off?), Sorrell said he viewed it as a merger or acquisition of sorts. ‘Britain would do better long-term as a part of EU than if it was separate – if we separate, the long-term GDP won’t be as strong as if we’d stuck together.’

And while the WPP boss thinks Britain can - and will - ride out the storm, it's not one he wanted to weather. ‘I’m sure we’ll manage our affairs as effectively as possible if we were to leave, but I have to say long-term, short-term and medium-term it’s not a good result.’

For WPP specifically, Sorrell said the referendum result meant it would focus more on four of its top ten markets - implicitly at the expense of its number two market, the UK. ‘Germany is fourth, France is sixth, Italy is ninth and Spain is tenth, so four of our top ten markets are Western continental Europe,’ he said. ‘We’ll put more energy there and we will be disadvantaged in relation to our European competition.’

But Sorrell also shared what he viewed as the big mistake made by the Remain campaign, which may have made a significant contribution to its downfall. ‘It stayed totally focused on the economy,’ he said; when polls had shown the NHS and controlling the UK’s borders as more pressing issues for people. ‘This is not a general election, this is a referendum.’

The unrelenting push on the economy was a ‘strategic mistake’ from Sorrell’s perspective. 'It was a fundamental misunderstanding of this referendum – it’s not just an economic issue, it’s an emotional issue.’

He wasn't the only bigwig to take a stance. ‘Uncertainty is very expensive indeed,’ added Lord Browne, former boss of BP, during their joint interview. He was clear that a Brexit would (and indeed in the immediate aftermath has) created ‘massive uncertainty.

‘If you were a CEO and said "I’m going to change my strategy completely, change all the rules and I’ll get back to you in a couple of years when I figure out what we’re going to do", the value of the firm would drop like a stone,’ he said. ‘I think we have a similar situation. I don’t argue that we should stay for short-term gain, but I think the short-term loss will be significant.’

Now the Conservative party wonders who will be the leader to trigger the looming Article 50. Browne said, ‘I’m struck by the legalities of Article 50 opening up all kinds of problems nobody has answers to. To redefine a role of a nation leaving the EU will require people to make new things up and that will require all 27 people to agree, which will mean all kinds of trade-offs.’

‘I think we never really thought of ourselves as part of Europe,’ he mused. ‘It’s taken time and changes of generation to think that way. I remember when I first came here to school in the 50s with a mother from Hungary and how people looked at somebody from the Continent and looked down on them.’

He made another pertinent observation before we actually got the breakdown of the referendum results. ‘When you look at surveys of the EU, I’m struck by the majority of people under 55 wanting to stay and the majoring of people over 55 wanting to go,’ he said.

A YouGov poll had 75% of under 25s opting for Remain (and 56% of those aged 25-49), while this dropped to 44% of those 50-64 and 39% of those 65+. 'Something is changing in the attitude of people in how they view Europe.' It just appears not to have changed fast enough.


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events