Sir Martin Sorrell on PR's place in the new wave of integration

The world's most successful marketing services entrepreneur and self-styled 'bean counter' talks to Danny Rogers about the new wave of integration and why comms finally deserves to be at the centre of things.

Sorrell: interviewed in PRWeek's integration issue this month (picture credit: Tom Campbell)
Sorrell: interviewed in PRWeek's integration issue this month (picture credit: Tom Campbell)

Sir Martin Sorrell is not everyone’s cup of tea. He admits he is a ‘bean counter’ by origin, and therefore a figure the self-styled ‘creative community’ loves to hate. And if you work for one of WPP’s rival groups – such as Omnicom or Publicis – you may, justifiably, fear a powerful operator who actually profited from the ill-fated mega-merger between the two groups last year.

Yet Sorrell is the most successful marketing services entrepreneur ever to emerge from this and arguably any other isle. WPP, the firm he started from a wire and paper product shell firm in 1985, and which he still definitely runs, today employs 178,000 people with revenues of £11 bn.

Most pertinently to the PR business, ten per cent of this vast turnover comes from communications consultancy (from Hill+Knowlton to Finsbury, Ogilvy PR to Cohn & Wolfe). Moreover, contrary to reputation, Sorrell in person can be thoughtful, inspiring and a strong advocate for PR.

So who better to quiz about the new wave of integration and what it means for comms professionals? I caught up with him recently in London.

If we presume that integration is happening more and more (Sorrell interrupts: "...which it is!") what does this mean for the future of ‘PR’ agencies? Will they just be subsumed into the bigger ad networks?

Well, let’s say Edelman was part of Publicis [mischievous grin]; there would be no reason why the individuals in the vertical, the PR specialists, shouldn’t run the horizontal; the wider business or an integrated client team. In our case, WPP now has 41 client teams – Team Ford, Team HSBC, Team Red (Vodafone) etc – so with ten per cent of our revenues from PR then at least four leaders of these teams should come from a comms background. Indeed I would argue that with the drivers of digital and data, PR should actually punch above its weight in the mix.

But at present none of your clients are led by comms specialists, so why are we not seeing more leaders, either at a country level or at an integrated client level, who come from a PR background?

That’s a fair comment. Marketing services groups tend to be advertising led – I don’t think WPP is, incidentally – and the Pavlovian reaction is not to pick PR as the lead discipline. And yet in this digital age, PR has an advantage. Campaigns for all clients increasingly resemble political campaigns. Digital and social media make communication more challenging. You can lose reputation that has taken many decades to build, in a simple click. This should put good PR at the centre of things.

Is there a sense that the media and marketing world still have to wake up to this fact?

The advertising discipline is over-indexed in terms of organisational execution. It is regarded as being the lead discipline. So when we talk about leading a geography, a function, a client team, we tend to think about the advertising and media management people first, which is not fair.

Where is the future leadership for the comms function going to come from?

Sadly we did have a great example in Howard Paster [the former Hill+Knowlton CEO and chief of WPP’s PR operation who died in 2011]. Howard came from a political comms background. He was a brilliant adviser to the Clintons and held great gravitas without ego. He was respected. Corporate CEOs would listen to him, as would people of any discipline. Yes it is difficult finding people of this stature. We do have other people like this – for example in Blue State Digital [WPP’s digital public affairs consultancy that advised the Obama election campaign].

So could the political world provide the key to unlock PR’s potential?

Yes – not only can governmental PR be lucrative, but it is analogous to commercial campaigns. We are now seeing corporate war rooms. Running a large client company can be like running a small country, or a city. If social and new media are growing – and you and I are spending a third of our time on them – these campaigning comms skills become more central. 

But isn’t PR held back by being forced to fish from corporate or public affairs budgets rather than more lucrative marketing budgets?

PR is certainly more project led, with lower budgets and less globally integrated. But that is changing. You are seeing a few instances when CMOs [chief marketing officers] are responsible for PR. There is certainly a risk when clients are fragmented in their approach. However when you get into M&A [merger and acquisition work] or crisis management, there can be no limit to what is invested. Marketing and PR/PA should be integrated in theory. Clients, with whom I spend one third of my time, are looking for simplification. I see clients who want to be more efficient and effective. Integration achieves this. We (as an agency group) should bring it together for them. There are huge client benefits in bringing the data together for example.

Surely there is also the danger that PR’s new position of strength – social media- and content-led campaigning – could be adopted and subsumed by ad agencies?

Ad agencies do say they can do this stuff, but they can’t. This is why the horizontality model is the right one: forming horizontal client teams comprising very strong vertical functions.

Is there an inherent contradiction between integration and strong specialism though?

There’s the danger that when you integrate you devalue the strength of the specialist vertical function, when what you need to do, of course, is to intensify the strength of that function. You need a subtle blend. And the challenge is that the better your people, usually the less willing they are to co-operate. Another balancing act is that the stronger the horizontal becomes then the less they want to work for the vertical. Some of these client teams work so well that they want to pitch for other clients. You have to be careful that you haven’t created Frankenstein’s monster. The focus must be on the client.

How do you balance ‘horizontality’ with the drive for some of your big agencies – such as Ogilvy – to be fully integrated in their own right? After all Ogilvy, a famous ad agency, has one of the world’s biggest PR networks and is also very strong in CRM (OgilvyOne).

Again you have to look at this from our clients’ perspective. Ogilvy employs 25,000 people, but that means there are still 150,000 WPP employees that their clients, or potential clients, could tap into. Ogilvy, although successful, does not have a monopoly on clients or wisdom.

Overall, you seem to be surprisingly positive about the PR business.

PR does suffer an inferiority complex, particularly in integrated groups. It’s a bit like media management was a few years ago. The media independents were set up because they were fed up with being treated like second-class citizens by advertising businesses. PR now has an opportunity to do something about this.

I like the PR business. It is a good business. The margins are on a par with an advertising agency. Yes PR/PA can be more fragmented; yes it can be more difficult to scale; but there are some things happening in digital and data that can make it much more contemporary, more interesting. I would like to do more in PR. We should be more aggressive [another mischievous grin and exit]. 

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Read the editor-in-chief's leader on why it's time for PR to throw off its inferiority complex

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