The Player

After 30 years of singular success in the business, Sam Sampson is well equipped to take the helm of WPP’s Enterprise initiative. Bhavna Mistry reports

Sam Sampson

Born Leicester, 1947

1965 Pre-dip (foundation) at Leicester College of Art. Sampson was there at the same time as Jim Coley, one of the founders of Coley Porter Bell.

1966-69 Ravensbourne College of Art and Design. Dip AD graphic design.

1969-72 Henrion Design Associates. Designer on various programmes, then lead designer on identity programmes for KLM and London Electricity. First met Terry Tyrrell.

1972-74 Raymond Loewy/William Snaith. Senior designer. Identity programmes for Allied Breweries, Ind Coope, Ansells, Tetley and Grants of St James.

1974-76 King & Wetherell (now King & Associates). Creative director on major programmes for Aer Lingus and Thomas Cook, and numerous smaller programmes. First met with Donough O’Brien.

1976 Reconnected with Terry Tyrrell and Donough O’Brien to form Sampson Tyrrell. Start-up date was 1 May.

1986 Met Martin Sorrell and joined WPP in August.

1991 Moved to WPP Farm Street as Head of Identity and Design for the UK- based companies.

1996 Launch of Enterprise Identity Group.

Sampson Tyrrell, Coley Porter Bell and BDG/McColl – three of the best known names in design – effectively have the same boss. But despite his powerful position and 30 years in design, Sam Sampson has a relatively low profile. His stable also includes Oakley Young and Scott Stern, and given that he has a responsibility to steer all these groups towards a profitable balance sheet for media megagroup WPP, it is not surprising to find a driven and ambitious personality at the helm.

Now working as chief executive of identity and design in Europe out of a small but pleasant office at WPP’s London headquarters, Sampson was the driving force behind the group’s potential design goldmine, the Enterprise initiative. He began moves to enable WPP’s UK and US consultancies to collaborate on certain projects three years ago. Both CPB and Sampson Tyrrell were originally involved, but identity was where it worked best. So Sampson Tyrrell took the ball and ran with it, becoming a leading partner in the initiative alongside US group Anspach Grossman. SBG Partners in Chicago, Artistree in Hong Kong and Ogilvy & Mather Identity in Taiwan are also under the Enterprise banner to provide global resources.

Talk to anyone who works with Sampson these days and they’ll say one of his major strengths is an instinctive knowledge of design and an unerring ability to make the right decision for his groups. John Zweig, WPP’s chief executive of specialist communications and Sampson’s own boss within the empire, says that the companies which are “supported by Sampson require the least attention from me. He understands the dynamics of running and building a business, and for a designer, the economic side of the business is a rare area in which to have expertise. But it’s the combination of his core strengths – economic awareness and knowledge of creative output and personnel – which makes him effective.”

But while a large part of Sampson’s role at WPP is as a facilitator and conduit for consultancies to WPP’s resources, few below the upper echelons of management have any dealings with him. A quick straw poll among former and current employees of consultancies under Sampson’s wing reveals a rather bland, though not unpleasant, consensus. The general feeling is one of a “pleasant man, but there’s no impression of personality, although he’s not as grey as John Major”, according to one ex-CPB staff member.

Another overriding impression seems to be of Sampson as very much a WPP man. “He is seen as a Martin Sorrell man, and anything that happens will get back to Martin through Sam,” says another observer. The only fiery aspect of Sampson’s character which drew comment is a ferocious temper. Sampson says displaying temper judiciously is a useful tool. “I don’t do it so much now, but when you’re in charge of a studio, and people aren’t performing to their best, it works as a kick-starter if you do it in a controlled way,” he comments amicably.

Talking face-to-face with him, the old cliché of still waters running deep springs to mind. Yes, Sampson has become a WPP man, but within that is a strong sense of personal ambition. He is pleasant and charming, yet also calculating. And while he is open, he chooses his words with care.

“My life in design seems to have developed in ten-year cycles,” says Sampson. After graduating from Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, he started work as a graphic designer at Henrion Design Associates, where he met Terry Tyrrell. “There was a real sense then that design was going to change the world, and working at Henrion’s was tremendous – you got to work on quite big jobs more or less on your own,” he says.

A three-year stint at Henrion’s – during which time Tyrrell was sacked – was followed by time at Raymond Loewy/William Snaith and King & Wetherell. “I suppose the extent of my ambition at King & Wetherell was to become a partner with King, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen – there were a lot of problems there and when I met up with Terry again at a photographer’s Christmas party, we talked about setting up on our own,” says Sampson.

Both interviewed each other before “deciding to go for it”. Sampson had been working on projects for British Gas, KLM, Allied Breweries, Aer Lingus and Thomas Cook, some at King & Wetherell with Donough O’Brien. O’Brien joined Tyrrell and Sampson to form Sampson Tyrrell in 1976, and British Gas was one of the clients which “transitioned with me”, says Sampson. Growth was cautious. “It was an approach which has stayed with us,” says Tyrrell. Sampson adds: “Sampson Tyrrell never borrowed and never has. We’ve never gone into the red.”

The relationship between Tyrrell and Sampson was one “of ying and yang. It was a totally complementary partnership. Sam was the managing director figure – into running the office and setting up systems. He is the original gadgets man – cameras, computers, cars. I was the client-facing person and still am,” says Tyrrell.

Tyrrell gives further insight into Sampson’s character and management style: “Sam is an incredibly democratic person – as long as you do things his way. He is single-minded and driven, but by contrast very shy,” says Tyrrell.

Ten years after forming Sampson Tyrrell, the consultancy was approached by Martin Sorrell and WPP. Both Tyrrell and Sampson claim they weren’t initially interested in being bought by WPP. They had been approached by Steve Smith at Addison, among others, in an era known for its acquisitive tendencies. Smith had also been turned down. “But Martin doesn’t give up. He just carried on talking,” says Sampson. And inevitably, in 1986, Sampson Tyrrell became WPP’s first significant design acquisition.

Sampson quickly got to grips with being a WPP man, and responsibility for Sampson Tyrrell was devolved to Dave Allen. In 1991, in order to coincide with the consultancy’s buy-out from WPP, Sampson moved out of Sampson Tyrrell’s headquarters into WPP’s offices to take up a new post as head of identity and design for the UK.

CPB, headed by Jan Hall, was also part of the WPP empire by now, and rumours of power struggles and personality clashes at WPP’s consultancies were rife in the industry. Hall seems to have seen her future at WPP, vying with Sampson for Sorrell’s attentions. “But CPB slightly lost its focus. Jan did some silly things and she ended up leaving,” he says.

Any mention of similarities between Hall and himself visibly unnerve Sampson. Both share the same drive, ambition and thirst for power, but how each channels that thirst differs. Sampson seems to have tailored his approach to become the most successful at WPP.

Sampson says the next milestone in his career was the launch of the Enterprise group this year. “It’s the culmination of three years’ work and there is a huge potential there, not only for WPP, but also for the consultancies which make up the group,” he says.

There is no doubt that Sampson commands wide respect and personal esteem from the people he works with. They trust his instinct and what Zweig terms his “native intelligence” and fairness. But there is also no doubt that they know who is boss.

For the next decade, Sampson’s plans include staying at WPP, looking for the next challenge. “I’m still enjoying what I’m doing here,” he says. “In this business, you work for the tremendous boost of delivering what the client needs and I’m still enthusiastic about communication.”

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