Media is where agencies are hurting

Why is revenue growth at some of the agency groups lagging forecasts for global ad expenditure?

The biggest and smallest of the big six global ad groups missed revenue targets in the second quarter and a pattern emerged: Media is where agency groups are hurting.

WPP, the biggest group, cut its forecast for growth in global ad expenditure across the industry from 4.4% to 3% in 2017.

WPP said its own net sales would increase by between only zero and 1% on a like-for-like basis this year, down from its previous target of 2% growth.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the WPP chief executive, blamed the under-performance on the loss of big media accounts such as Volkswagen and AT&T and sudden cuts in adspend and agency fees by consumer goods companies such as Unilever.

"Our media business is obviously going to have a tough year in Europe," Paul Richardson, WPP’s finance director, said, noting it has had some "pretty significant" account losses in Germany and Italy.

That’s on top of a bad 2016 in the US, where losing AT&T has left a big hole in WPP’s media business.

Havas, the smallest of the big six groups, painted a similar picture, saying it no longer expects to meet its revenue growth target of 2%-3% this year.

Like WPP, Havas said consumer goods companies were chiefly to blame and other sectors such as telecoms and autos have also cut back.

The UK was the worst performer for Havas as revenues plunged 7% on a like-for-like basis in the second quarter following the loss of "media accounts", including Nationwide Building Society, and cuts by Unilever.

"It’s not just media spending," Yannick Bolloré, the chief executive of Havas, said, pointing out clients have been reducing investment in creative work in many markets.

The nagging question is: why is revenue growth at some of the agency groups lagging forecasts for global ad expenditure?

It’s a complex picture because a lot of agency fees aren’t directly linked to media spend.

In the case of WPP, it is clear the group has suffered from a double whammy of account losses and exposure to consumer goods companies.

By contrast, Omnicom has performed relatively well because it won Volkswagen and AT&T and has a relatively low proportion of consumer goods clients.

There could be other structural shifts that are eating into agency groups' income.

Media has been high margin and helped to boost other less profitable parts of the ad business, but a lot of big advertisers have tightened their contracts with agencies because of transparency questions in the last 12 months.

Is that also prompting advertisers to do more of their digital marketing and data management in-house or to use consulting firms rather than traditional agencies?

Advertising is a bellwether for the economy, so a slowdown for agencies could also be an early warning that Donald Trump’s chaotic administration is unnerving corporate confidence in the US and beyond.

In the meantime, agency groups are already doing what they do as soon as revenues slide: reducing headcount and cutting bonus pools.

2017 now looks like it will be disappointing. The test will be whether the market can bounce back in 2018 or if we are at the start of a "new normal".

Gideon Spanier is Campaign's head of media


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