Sorrell, the highly esteemed boss at global marketing services group WPP, was speaking at a CIPR dinner last week, but we had a private chat to circumvent the Chatham House rules.
He believes editorial publicity (PR) has 'resumed its rightful place as one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, marketing medium today'. This, Sorrell puts down partly to the advent of social media, partly to the rise of the importance of polling and data, and partly to the maturing of the industry itself. 'It used to be about who you knew. Now it is about what you know, as well as who you know' he said.
However, PR and public affairs - via such auspicious consultancy brands as Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, Finsbury and Robinson Lerer & Montgomery, among others - contribute just ten per cent of WPP's £9bn revenues. When I quizzed Sorrell as to the single biggest factor holding PR back, his response was 'talent'.
At first glance, this is surprising. Having covered the advertising, marketing and PR worlds as a journalist for more than a decade, one of the most noticeable things about the latter sector is the cast of likeable, charismatic and well-networked characters at the top of the business. But Sorrell's talent analysis goes deeper. He is comparing PR not with advertising, but with professional consultancy firms such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs (where one of his sons, Mark, has just become a partner). 'These firms continuously hire the best people. Our malaise as an industry is that we don't - we just nick them.'
Sorrell quite rightly points out that marcoms consultancies, and particularly PR, has a tendency to 'steal' talent from other firms, rather than training, developing and evaluating people in-house.
'Today, most industries have overcapacity, but we are in the differentiation business and our shortage is in people,' he says.
However, Sorrell did point to one bright spot for the comms business; the huge demand from blue-chip organisations to improve their internal comms. 'It's the biggest challenge for CEOs at the moment,' he said.
WPP continues to develop effective 'virtual agencies' for its biggest clients, such as the Detroit-based Team Ford and the Cincinatti-based Team P&G. Indeed, this is one way in which agencies can develop their talent in line with client expectations. On this count, and many others, WPP rivals would do well to listen to Sorrell and start overhauling their business models.