EDITORIAL: All eyes on Paster as WPP boosts PR

The fortunes of his PR businesses must have come as something of a disappointment to WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell of late. Only two to three years ago he - and a raft of other marketing service group heads - saw the increasingly specialised nature of PR as a buffer against a recession.

But having been one of the most prolific investors in PR during the past few years, Sorrell has seen his PR and public affairs revenues dive by 13 per cent in the year to Q1 2002 - more than any of his other marketing services interests.

But while he admits PR has been surprisingly badly hit by the global economic downturn, he also says that when the recovery finally comes, the cyclical upswing will be stronger in PR than in other sectors.

Now he has created a new role to help ensure that this is actually the case - and that his considerable investment in PR brands pays off.

Howard Paster, who has stepped up to the role of EV-P PR and public affairs, insists there will be no change to WPP's famously hands-off approach to its subsidiary brands, and that, having handed over Hill & Knowlton to Paul Taaffe, he has no intention of trying to run the individual businesses.

This does not mean, however, that the various WPP brands will not come under scrutiny. All the brands in the WPP group have already come under pressure to cut costs, and Paster's work with the agencies is likely to involve checking that all reasonable steps have been taken towards driving up margins across all offices.

There is also the question of future investment. Sorrell's appetite for large-scale agency acquisition is likely to have been dampened somewhat by the recent Tempus fiasco, but this does not mean that investment in PR is now de rigeur and is still likely to increase over the next 24 months.

As a result, Paster's strategic input is likely to include an analysis of potential specialist or geographic buys that will help to drive WPP brands' competitiveness in the international market.

Formal consolidation of same-sector brands, such as Finsbury and Buchanan, is still being ruled out, but agencies are also likely to find themselves working closer together on an informal basis, as Paster looks to plug any gaps within the group's expertise.

Paster is coy about the strategic importance of the move, and says that time will tell as to the wisdom of creating such an umbrella role. But with WPP results and Sorrell's forecasting seen as one of the most accurate barometers of the temperature of the industry, all eyes will be on the performance of the brands in Paster's care during the next 12 months.

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