WPP: PR and PA among strongest performer in Q1, responds to Kantar sale report

Revenue in WPP's PR and public affairs arm grew 1.5 per cent on a like-for-like basis in Q1, as the group gave a cool response to media reports it plans to sell its data and market research business Kantar.

However, WPP said this morning it will take a "fresh look at our strategy" after Martin Sorrell’s departure. Joint COOs Mark Read and Andrew Scott are to review the overall strategy and make recommendations to the Board, saying they will "proactively address the under-performing parts of our business".

The Times reported on Saturday that Kantar CEO Eric Salama has been in talks with banks about a potential £3.5bn management buyout of the business that last year achieved operating profits of £350m on sales of c.£2.7bn.

Speaking to PRWeek after Sorrell’s departure earlier this month, some industry figures from within WPP and outside it speculated a sale of Kantar could be likely, due to its recent poor performance. There has also been speculation that the PR operations could be put up for sale.

In a statement following the Times story, a WPP spokesman said: "[Executive chairman] Roberto Quarta, Mark Read and Andrew Scott are leading the business and reviewing the group's strategy. They will focus on the optimum shape of the group to create growth and shareholder value and will make their recommendations to the Board in due course.

"It is too early to speculate about specific asset sales. In the meantime, it has been made clear that they don't believe breaking up the group makes sense."

Announcing its first quarter results this morning, WPP said PR and public affairs was among the divisions that showed the strongest growth in the first quarter. Total revenue in the division – which includes Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Hill + Knowlton, Finsbury and Buchanan - rose 0.5 per cent (excluding currency fluctuations) to £296m ($407.4m).

WPP said there was "particularly strong growth" in PR and public affairs in the UK, where overall like-for-like revenue growth was 5.4 per cent, against like-for-like decline of 1.1 per cent in the US and -1.5 per cent in Western Continental Europe. Growth was +2.8 per cent in Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe.

Donna Imperato, CEO of the newly created Burson Cohn & Wolfe, said Cohn & Wolfe beat its budget "significantly" in the first quarter, with growth of 10 per cent; the merger and Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller was announced in February, although the P&Ls will remain separate until 2019.

Imperato said: "The foundation and momentum we’ve built as an integrated communications agency has secured continuing success, which is already helping to drive growth at BCW. Recent and significant wins for our merged entity helped Burson-Marsteller beat budget as well and show growth in the first quarter."  

Revenue at WPP fell two per cent in the quarter to £3.555bn ($4.89bn), with growth of 0.8 per cent on a like-for-like basis. Quarta said trading is "in line with our expectations" and WPP's guidance for 2018 performance remains unchanged.

Addressing the next stage for WPP after Sorrell’s departure, Quarta said: "Mark Read and Andrew Scott are providing the stability and leadership WPP requires, but there is no standing still. They have my and the Board’s full backing to review the strategy, to come back to us with recommendations, and to move forward decisively to implement our vision for the group."

In a joint statement, Read and Scott said: "In the last two weeks we have focused on spending time with our clients and people, and the response has been very encouraging. As expected, our people are getting on with business as usual, and our clients have expressed their continued support for, and confidence in, WPP."

The duo said they would take "a fresh look at our strategy, developing a vision for the group that recognises the challenges and opportunities presented by the structural shifts in our industry, and executing resolutely against it".

"Our priority is to focus on growth. We will proactively address the under-performing parts of our business and we need to ensure that our capital is deployed to those areas that will grow fastest and maximise shareholder value.

"Looking ahead, we will get even closer to our clients, and provide faster, more agile, more integrated solutions with data and technology at their heart – making it simpler to access the wealth of talent, creativity and capabilities we have within WPP.

"Concentrating our efforts on stimulating growth for our clients, and organising the group to make that possible, is the best way to restore growth for WPP and all its stakeholders."

This story was updated on Monday afternoon with comment from Donna Imperato.

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