'Don't Give Away Free Content', Sorrell Tells Media Owners

22 June 2006

Addressing the Newspaper Society's Home Truths conference earlier this week, WPP Group ceo Sir Martin Sorrell urged his audience not to offer free content either online or off.

Delivering the event's keynote speech, Sorrell told delegates from the UK's regional and local press: "I have always had a problem with free content. It goes against the grain. I think if the consumer values the content we should charge him or her for it."

According to the accountant-turned-advertising-guru, most media owners are now focused on "building eyeballs" then charging for ads. He cited recent initiatives, including the free edition of Standard Lite in London and the similar experiment currently under trial by the Manchester Evening News.

Switching his sights from hind to fore, Sir Martin opined that the best way for newspaper companies to prepare and adapt for technological change is by way of "separate vertical" divisions.

"Most people have got legacy companies but you have to have a separate vertical," said the sage. "People running traditional companies do not move quickly enough. It is impossible to change a company rapidly enough in this era of technological change."

NewsCorp's acquisition of social networking site Myspace and ITV's purchase of Friends Reunited were two such instances cited by Sir Martin as typifying problems in deciding a strategy for online operations - not least in generating revenue from users.

Another example offered by Sorrell was the online operations of quality newspapers. All have an element of paid-for content but the bulk of the editorial offering is still free.

Sir Martin, a pragmatist in the often Panglossian world of advertising and media, did not cite the example of the planet's largest publisher of free newspapers, Metro International.

He is almost certainly aware, however, that in its eleventh year, with 64 Metro editions published in 91 major cities in 19 countries, the company's president/ceo Pelle Törnberg still declares it to be his "clear priority [to deliver] group profitability in 2006".

Data sourced from mad.co.uk and Metrio International; additional content by WARC staff