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Advertising // Scientology dispute draws in WPP chief

Title: Advertising // Scientology dispute draws in WPP chief
Date: Thursday, 20 June 1991
Publisher: Wall Street Journal
Author: Joanne Lipman
Main source: link (243 KiB)

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A bizarre run-in between Time magazine and the Church of Scientology has ensnared an unlikely victim: WPP Group's Martin Sorrell.

Ever since Time ran a May 6 cover story depicting the Scientology group as a "cult of greed," the Scientologists have been striking back, criticizing the article as a "sensationalized attack" full of "falsehoods." In the past week, the Scientologists have broadened their attack. This time, in one of the stranger plot twists Madison Avenue has seen, their target is Mr. Sorrell, the low-key Briton who runs one of the world's largest advertising and public relations conglomerates.

Though they cite no evidence to back up their claim, the Scientologists are accusing Mr. Sorrell of pressuring Time into running the article. Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, charges in an interview: "The guy to look at is Martin Sorrell. He called the shots in terms of ... determining what went into Time magazine. There's no question it was completely planted."

Time terms "patently absurd" the Scientologists accusation that the story was planted by anyone.

Mr. Jentzsch insists that Mr. Sorrell was backed by all the advertising dollars that WPP's J. Walter Thompson spends in Time magazine. "It's very clear J. Walter Thompson was able to put the pressure on Time magazine. They have an awful lot of money they put in there," he says.

Mr. Sorrell, who declined comment, got caught up in the fray by a curious turn of events. His company's Hill & Knowlton public relations firm in 1988 took on the Scientologists as a client. His company's Thompson agency, meanwhile, handles Eli Lilly, which makes the antidepressant drug Prozac, a prescription the Scientologists have vehemently attacked. Eli Lilly complained to Mr. Sorrell about Hill & Knowlton's link to the group, and in May the PR firm dropped the Scientologists as a client.

"We told him [Mr. Sorrell] we found it intolerable to do business with people who would do business with people of the ilk of Scientology," a Lilly spokesman says. "Did we tell them to drop the church? No. It was their decision what to do." Hill & Knowlton executives say other conflicts within the PR company also led to the resignation.

Generally, communications conglomerates insist on a Chinese Wall between their advertising and public-relations units, letting them handle conflicting clients. Saatchi & Saatchi Co.'s Rowland PR unit handles McDonald's, for example, even though Saatchi's advertising subsidiary works for Burger King.

But at WPP, ad clients like Lilly have occasionally pulled rank. Hill & Knowlton dropped the American Newspaper Publishers Association as a client several years ago, for example, after its sister unit, Thompson, got complaints from its own client, Bell Atlantic. The two clients were on opposite sides of the highly charged debate over electronic yellow pages.

The Scientologists, though, depict their split with Hill & Knowlton as part of a plot by WPP to smear the group and help Thompson's client, Lilly.

On Friday, the group distributed a glossy, 28-page advertisement in USA Today that suggests Lilly planted the story in Time "through its advertising connections and media influence." The insert, which according to USA Today's rate card costs $181,000, was part of a massive, $2 million-plus ad campaign to discredit Time that includes full-page ads every day through mid-July. (Rate card price: $74,000 a pop).

"How far will Time go to support its advertisers?" the insert asks. It answers by noting that WPP's clients supposedly spend $57 million in Time or 15% of the magazine's ad revenue — a calculation it cites without giving a source. "That kind of money has influence," the ad says. It shows a big photograph of Mr. Sorrell with a sidebar about WPP's "extreme financial difficulties" and implies that WPP had to do Lilly's bidding because "entire companies can evaporate with the loss of a major client."

In an interview, Mr. Jentzsch goes even further. Lilly executives called Mr. Sorrell to Indianapolis headquarters, he insists, and "were able to put pressure on Martin Sorrell" and to demand, "We want an article." While Mr. Sorrell did meet with executives in Indianapolis in August, the Lilly spokesman dismisses Mr. Jentzsch's assertions as "nonsense" and "laughable."

Almost no one in the ad business takes the Scientologists' accusations seriously. They only wish they had the kind of power to "plant" articles that the Scientologists ascribe to Mr. Sorrell and VVPP. But there is, nevertheless, a bit of head-shaking going on among advertising and public relations relations executives around town — all thankful they aren't Mr. Sorrell.

Says Herbert Rowland, Rowland's chief executive officer, "I wouldn't be interested in accepting any kind of role for an organization like that. I'm uncomfortable with any group that has a fanatic point of view.''