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WPP's F1 sponsorship results hardly on pole position

NEWS STORY
10/07/2011

Sir Martin Sorrell may only be an independent non-executive director of F1's parent company, Delta Topco, but based on the amount he has spoken out about issues in the sport you could be forgiven for thinking that he had a bigger role.

First Sorrell took issue with comments made by F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone seemingly in support of Hitler. Then he took issue with Ecclestone saying that "even murderers don't get life," when former Renault team boss Flavio Briatore was given a lifetime ban from F1 for allegedly forcing Nelson Piquet junior to crash. "First we had 'Hitler did good' and now we have 'cheating is acceptable'. It's another example, I'm afraid, of Bernie being totally out of touch with reality," said Sorrell. The ruling against Briatore was later overturned but it didn't stop Sorrell's comments.

In response to the possibility of News Corporation taking over F1 Sorrell recently said "I see no harm whatsoever in a pay-TV company investing in or owning Formula One." One wonders whether his view has changed in light of the recent damning phone hacking scandal which has engulfed News Corp.

The volume of comments from Sorrell perhaps explains why News Corp's deputy chief executive James Murdoch recently mistook him for F1's chairman as Pitpass' business editor Christian Sylt has reported.

Whilst Sorrell is not F1's chairman, he has had an involvement with the sport for over 40 years. It stretches way back to when he handled Sir Jackie Stewart's management account at talent agency IMG in 1969, the first year that the Scot won the world championship.

Aside from Sorrell's current position as an independent non-executive director of Delta Topco (and his ownership of 0.3% of the company), his most public link with F1 comes through him being chief executive of WPP which is the world's biggest advertising firm. One of WPP's wholly-owned companies is called PRISM which it claims is its "largest and most successful sponsorship agency partner."

PRISM has worked with some of the biggest brands in F1 including Ford, ING and current clients Shell and Infiniti. According to its website the company provides services such as sponsorship consultancy, sponsorship marketing and content PR. Indeed its own name neatly describes this since the company at the heart of PRISM is London-based Public Relations and International Sports Marketing limited.

PRISM's website shows that it has regional offices in Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America and although its accounts aren't consolidated, those of its London-based company state that its "principal activities are public relations and international sports marketing in the UK and Middle East." In the year to 31 December 2010 its revenue increased 45.5% but only to £4m. However, it managed to improve its margins as total costs increased just 5% to £4.9m. This gave it a better bottom line which meant that it finished the year with a net loss of £800,000 down from £1.8m the previous year. PRISM only represents a tiny fraction of WPP's total £9.3bn revenue but, according to the accounts, it depends on its parent.

The accounts state that PRISM "meets its day to day working capital requirements through intercompany financing from other members of WPP plc and participation in group banking arrangements with its ultimate parent, WPP plc having access to a group cash management facility." The upshot is that PRISM owes £7.8m to group undertakings and has a £1.2m overdraft up from £440,000 in 2009. The company has net liabilities of £7.3m, net current liabilities of £9m and by the end of 2010 it had a £7.3m shareholders' deficit.

According to the accounts "the directors have a reasonable expectation that the company has adequate resources to continue in operational existence for the foreseeable future." This is defined as being "at least twelve months from the date of approval of these accounts," which was 7 June this year. The accounts state that "higher revenue is expected to be generated in 2011." However, the outlook for PRISM's bottom line still seems bleak since it is also stated that "the company has continued to make a loss in the period between 31 December 2010 and the date of authorisation of these accounts." It's easy to see why this may be the case given that paying for the company's 25 staff alone comprises around a quarter of its costs.

A total of 310 F1 sponsors are believed to have paid a total of around £750m last year so PRISM does have a lot of potential. One only wonders whether Sorrell will continue to plug away at this himself or whether it would make more sense for WPP to bring more experience under its wing.

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