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The Times: Millionaire ad man sues for libel over ‘mad dwarf and nympho schizo’ blog

March 15, 2007
By Michael Horsnell

Sir Martin Sorrell, the global advertising magnate, accused two former Italian colleagues yesterday of a hate campaign in which they labelled him and a female executive “the mad dwarf and the nympho schizo”.

The diminutive founder and chief executive of WPP Group, which is worth £7.8 billion, also complained in the High Court about a “vicious image” that had been disseminated of him and Daniela Weber on the internet.

The “vicious” image is understood to be a mocked-up picture of Sir Martin and Ms Weber in a compromising position. In a further slur, Ms Weber, 44, who replaced the two ex-colleagues after they had been sacked by Sir Martin, was allegedly referred to as his “hot lover”.

Sir Martin, 62, and Ms Weber are suing Marco Benatti, the founder of the Italian media company FullSix, and Marco Tinelli, its chief executive, for libel, as well as the company itself.

Sir Martin, who was educated at Cambridge and Harvard, last hit the headlines in 2005 over his £29 million divorce from his wife Sandra. He is also suing for invasion of privacy in a separate but simultaneous action.

The acrimonious case, which is expected to last three weeks, is the first in which internet blogs have been at the centre of a defamation hearing.

Desmond Browne, QC, for Sir Martin, told Mr Justice Eady, who is hearing the case without a jury, that the story concerned the aftermath of a “close friendship” between Mr Benatti and Ms Weber which broke down in 2005 and the termination of Mr Benatti’s consultancy as the country manager for the WPP advertising conglomerate in Italy.

Sir Martin, who is said to have a personal fortune of up to £100 million, sat in front of his lawyers in court 13 listening intently as his grievances were outlined.

Ms Weber, described as an “exceptionally talented” advertising executive, had worked for Mr Benatti since her student days in Verona, more than 20 years earlier.

By 2005 she had become chief operating officer of WPP Italy as well as a director of FullSix, in which WPP had a share of just over 20 per cent. But by the end of the year relations between her and Mr Benatti had crumbled.

Ms Weber, the judge was told, believed it was because she had blocked some of Mr Benatti’s proposals, thinking they were too extravagant. “By January 4 last year, things had reached such a pass in the relationship between them that in a phone conversation that day, Mr Benatti called her a piece of s***, words which were audible to her small son who was in the room,” said Mr Browne.

Five days after the incident, matters between Mr Benatti and Sir Martin, who made his fortune after leaving Saatchi & Saatchi in 1986, came to a head.

The tycoon considered that material that had come to light about his colleague’s behaviour justified terminating his consultancy, and he sacked him.

Amid growing public acrimony, Mr Benatti’s lawyer telephoned WPP’s lawyer and told him that Mr Benatti would be devoting the next few years to “destroying Sir Martin and WPP, and it had now become a personal matter”.

Mr Browne said that that “extraordinary remark” was corroborated by clear evidence that about that time FullSix’s employees began to discuss “countermeasures” against WPP, Sir Martin and Ms Weber.

They included the posting of a blog last March that contained a host of libels against Sir Martin.

The very day that Sir Martin managed to get the blog taken down, Mr Benatti e-mailed his friends saying that blogs were like mushrooms. “They sometimes, he said, pop up again the next time it rains,” said Mr Browne.

“The blogs duly did pop up again the next time it rained, and they duly did on two different sites – one in the US, where the service provider had statutory protection from suit.”

A second countermeasure on March 23 last year involved the dispatching of a series of e-mails containing the vicious image, “grossly intruding” into the private lives of Sir Martin and Ms Weber.

Mr Browne said : “Naturally, it would intrude even further to even try and describe it. We say that Tinelli was directly involved in the dissemination of that vicious image and there is certainly no doubt that he felt just as bitterly hostile towards Sir Martin and Ms Weber as did his boss, Benatti.

“I say no doubt because on the very morning the images were sent out by e-mail, he referred to them as ‘the mad dwarf and the nympho schizo’.”

Mr Browne said that those responsible took elaborate steps to cover their tracks.

“Mr Benatti and Mr Tinelli had both the motive and the opportunity,” Mr Browne said. “Nothing has come to light to suggest that there are any other possible suspects and, gradually, analysis of the forensic evidence has filled in the jigsaw.”

Counsel said that on February 13 this year, the defendants’ solicitors conceded that as a result of the evidence someone in FullSix might have been involved in the dissemination of the picture, and that it may have been the same person or persons involved in publishing the blog.

Mr Browne said both Italians were “quite simply in it together”. He described as “weasel words” an apology that was given to Sir Martin after he and his lawyers complained to FullSix last July.

The court was told that e-mails of the vicious image were designed to look as if they were from WPP with the subject lines “accelerate your career at WPP” and “4 steps to boost your career”.

The case continues.

The Sorrell storyboard

* Sir Martin Sorrell was educated at The Habersashers’ Aske’s School in London before going up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he read economics

* In 1968 he completed an MBA at the Harvard Business School, at the age of 23

* He worked for Glendinning Associates in the US and later with Mark McCormack, the promoter, before a nine-year spell as a finance director at Saatchi & Saatchi

* In 1985 he bought Wire and Plastic Products, a shell company, and set about creating a global advertising empire

* In 1987 WPP acquired the advertising agency JWT, a company ten times its size.

* Two years later it paid £438 million for Ogilvy & Mather

* WPP, the world’s second largest advertising group, now employs 60,000 workers. Its members’ work includes the campaign for Dove soap products, left, and advertising for Foster’s Beer and easyJet

* Another high-profile initiative has been HSBC’s campaign, exploiting cultural differences around the world Sir Martin was ordered to pay his ex-wife £29 million in a divorce settlement in October 2005

* Sir Martin once said: “All research I’ve seen says that editorial publicity is better than paid-for publicity”

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/corporate/article1517388.ece

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