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'Time' squabble / Scientology adds WPP units to attack [exact date unknown]

Title: 'Time' squabble / Scientology adds WPP units to attack [exact date unknown]
Date: Friday, 21 June 1991
Publisher: Advertising Age
Author: Gary Levin
Main source: link (94 KiB)

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NEW YORK—WPP Group's Hill & Knowlton, the giannt public relations agency charged with generating favorable images for clients, is having public relations problems of its own.

The latest controversy surfaced last month, when the agency was forced to resign the $2 million Church of Scientology International account a week after a May 6 Time cover story labeled the church a "cult of greed" that had bilked its followers of millions of dollars.

The church quickly began an ad campaign in USA Today attempting to discredit Time, culminating in a 28-page magazine-style insert June 14 (AA, June 3).

For some time, Scientology has been attacking drug marketers and Eli Lilly & Co. in particular for anti-depressant products like Lilly's Prozac, which the church claimed could drive users to homicide and suicide.

J. Walter Thompson Co., which like Hill & Knowlton is owned by WPP Group, counts Lilly as its most important healthcare client and pressured WPP to force the PR agency to give up the Scientology account. Lilly represents a significant share of the JWT Healthcare unit's $40 million in billings.

In the insert, the church claimed WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell "found himself wedged between JWT's losses of major client accounts [referring to the period shortly after WPP's 1987 takeover of the agency] and Lilly's demands that Hill & Knowlton abandon its account with the Church."

The ad, created in-house, said Time's story was motivated by a desire to protect WPP's healthcare advertiser clients, and therefore Time's own revenues. The insert claimed "perhaps 15%" of the magazine's ad revenues, or "an estimated $57 million," come from companies "controlled" by London-based WPP, and implied those revenues could have been jeopardized if Time hadn't come to Lilly's rescue by discrediting the Scientologists.

"Lilly, through its advertising connections and media influence, has attempted to silence the Church in order to salvage and protect its billion-dollar Prozac empire through the Time article," the ad said.

"I'm not sure quite honestly I understand the connection they're drawing between Lilly, WPP and Time, but the idea that WWP had any hand in the story is ridiculous said Robert Pondiscio, a spokesman for Time. He said the newsweekly stands by article.

Frank Mankiewicz, Hill & Knowlton vice chairman, described as a "logical fallacy" that the Lilly conflict led to the Scientology resignation, saying it was the agency's own decision. Other Hill & Knowlton sources disputed that assertion; WPP declined to comment.

Meanwhile, SmithKline Beecham Corp. which had assigned Hill & Knowlton a drug similar to Prozac less than a week before the Time story appeared, pulled the account three days later but left its oversee business intact. SmithKline wouldn't comment but is said to have been unaware that the agency even represented Scientology and learned of it only from Time.

Top executives were said to be "uncomfortable" with the Scientology account but didn't want to give up it up at a time when business is slumping.

Many observers trace Hill & Knowlton's appetite for touchy issues to Bob Dilenschneider, the agency's flamboyant president-ceo. He declined to be interviewed for this article but has been the subject of earlier, unflattering magazine profiles.

"I think of it as Dilenschneider's style [?] and the nature of his perception of where money can be made in PR," said Laurie Goldberger, analyst at Shearson Lehman Bros., who follows WPP. Under Mr. Dilenschneider, the agency has been embroiled in controversies involving the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop and the Citizens for a Free Kuwait.

"The perception was Hill & Knowlton was an old gray lady," said one executive at the agency. "What [Dir. Dilenschneider] wanted to do was wake it up and bring it to the forefront."

A spot check of other clients didn't turn up any major concerns about the controversy.

"Our view of that kind of thing is that's Bob Dilenschneider's problem," said Wright Elliott, exec VP-director of corporate communications at Chase Manhattan Bank. "If they were taking a position on bank deregulation, that's one thing. But I don't think that ought to get into our relationship."

"They've done a very pod job for us, and we don't tell them how to run their business," said Donna Galotti, publisher of Ladies' Home Journal.

Gary Gerdemann, public relations manager at Pepsi-Cola Co., said its relationship with Hill & Knowlton was unaffected.

"Clearly, we wouldn't be involved with a public relations agency that we didn't think brought value to our relationship," he said.

Scott Donaton and Alison Fahey contributed to this story.