WPP’s Sorrell: Google Blundered In China, Should Open Its Robe To Europe

With a possible European Commission antitrust inquiry looming over Google (NSDQ: GOOG), the advertising boss who says “we’re Google’s biggest customer” has come out batting for marketers he says are gagging for regulatory measures.

“The ‘G’ word” is “competitively dangerous”, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell told the FT Digital Media & Broadcasting Conference in London on Tuesday, a week after the EC said it had received three antitrust complaints.

“We want to see more balance in the search marketplace – we want to see more alternatives – the competition will make it fairer.” Asked if WPP had considered filing a complaint, Sorrell said: “We haven’t, but our clients have. They want to see some regulatory thought, investigation, clearance. The EU wants to see more transparency about search rankings. If there’s nothing to hide, then fine, everything will be hunky dory.”

The antitrust complaints – from UK price searcher Foundem, French search site ejustice.fr and Microsoft’s Ciao price comparison site Ciao – have not developed in to a formal probe; the EC has asked Google for its response.

In Europe, Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) and Bing each have such miniscule share that, even combined, pose little challenge to Google. “The smaller companies are much more likely to sing out about this,” Sorrell said, adding that some in advertising find Google’s dominance “frightening”.

Chinese whispers: The WPP chief is not flat-out negative toward Google, which he still calls a “frenemy” – but it’s already mis-stepped in one international market by announcing
it will reconsider its Chinese operations following an alleged hack attack, he reckons.

“We may have seen a strategic blunder in China – you don’t take the Chinese government on – certainly not in public; I don’t think that’s the way to do it. If you’re a media owner in China – as the vice premier said at Davos – you abide by their rules. We apply western thinking to eastern markets at their peril.”

Facebook for ads: As much as Google was concerned with its own users’ privacy in China, Sorrell said, so it and the ad industry must heed the same consideration when advertising to its users elsewhere. Asked about Facebook, he said: “The problem is, these social networks – I liken it to writing letters … invasion of that by commercial messages is not necessarily a good thing … they’re more personal phenomena … With Beacon and there was another occasion, they screwed up quite royally.”

The future’s flat: Looks like WPP expects to post a stable Q409 this coming Friday – though Sorrell wouldn’t disclose finances ahead of that date, it would be an improvement from 2008/09 but not entirely pleasing to Sorrell. “There was a radical change in November,” he said. “If people had any annual budgets in the locker at the end of the year, they let that come out.” For the year ahead: “I think we’ll see modest growth.”