LONDON — WPP’s PR firms reported a rise in revenues of 2% for the first quarter of 2021 – the first quarterly rise for the division for two years.

The positive results follow the division – which includes BCW, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Finsbury Glover Hering – outperforming other disciplines during 2020: full year results announced last month showed PR down 4% for the year, compared with the holding company’s 8.2% overall drop in revenue. The PR division had previously recorded a 1% drop for 2019.

In his results presentation, WPP CFO John Rogers said there had been “continuing good demand for strategic communications advice” and that “PR delivered solid growth in the quarter.” He said: “We actually saw an increase in our operating profit of 0.5%. PR was the least impacted of all our sectors throughout Covid and indeed was able to demonstrate growth on a two-year basis, principally driven by growth at BCW, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and in specialist PR, with strong growth at Finsbury Glover Hering.”

In comparison, WPP’s global integrated agencies division – including Ogilvy, described as "improving" in performance – was up 2.8% and its specialist agencies saw like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs up 7.5%.

Overall, WPP’s Q1 revenue was up 1.8%; like-for-like revenue was up 6.3%, while like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs was up 3.1%. The top performing markets were the US (up 0.7%); the UK (up 3.9%); Germany (up 2.5%); and Greater China (up 18.4%).

The best-performing client sectors in Q1 were the same as the leading sectors for 2020: consumer packaged goods (CPG), technology and healthcare (which together make up 54% of 3,000+ clients’ revenue less pass through costs), plus a strong recovery in automotive. However, retail, travel and leisure were still down and yet to show any rebound.

In his presentation to analysts, WPP chief executive Mark Read said: “Our public relations businesses had a good 2020. Looking back, PR was always the discipline got most hit in a downturn, that's not the case in 2020. I think it talks to the importance of public relations to clients. Today I'd point out in our Walgreens Boots win, it covers both creative and communications that spans both the sort of marketing elements and the communications elements of the business. And I think clients interestingly see the importance of bringing those things together in the complex world.”

He also highlighted purpose-driven work across the business an “accelerating trend”: “Clearly, the pandemic has brought the ways in which companies navigate societal trends, government trends, manage people very much to the fore. And this highlights some work that we did for P&G on the topic of race. We've also done a lot of work with Pfizer to help launch their new positioning around Science Will Win to recognize the impact of science in combating the virus.”

“WPP has had a strong start to the year with a return to growth in all business lines and most major markets. Our strengths in ecommerce, digital media and technology, combined with our ongoing investment in creative talent, are resonating with clients as their markets recover and they seek to transform their offer for future growth.”

He also spotlighted the group’s new sustainability pledge: “Last week we made an industry-leading commitment to target net zero carbon emissions across our entire supply chain by 2030, putting our $60 billion of media billings behind this initiative. We will work with our clients, media owners and the industry on this collaborative effort.”

In terms of how the rest of 2021 was looking, Read said: “The roll-out of vaccines is improving visibility in many markets, although there is inevitably uncertainty over the pace of recovery. We are making good progress on our transformation programme, which will deliver significant efficiencies to reinvest in growth, and are confident of delivering our growth and profitability guidance for 2021.”