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The US behaved like a fast-growing market

The most surprising feature of 2010 was the relatively strong performance of mature geographical markets, such as the US and Germany and traditional media, like free-to-air television. The headline was “The US and traditional media bite back.” Indeed, the US behaved more like a fast-growing market, or as some others insist on calling them, an emerging market (despite the fact that many of them, like China, the world’s second largest economy, have emerged), growing at 7%, against GDP growth of around 3%.

There seem to be a number of possible reasons for this. First, there was an element of ‘dead-cat bounce’, as advertising as a proportion of US GDP probably reached a low not seen since the mid-1970s in 2009 and massive government and central bank-driven fiscal and monetary stimuli kicked in and stimulated activity from the heavily-depressed levels of 2009. Second, there was a significant increase in activity in sectors that had been heavily cut, such as automobiles, financial services and retail (and a number of new marketing ‘wars’ such as automobiles and telecommunications), further stimulated by heavy political spending around the mid-term Congressional elections, especially following the United States Supreme Court decision permitting freer lobbying. Third, there was significant excess traditional media inventory, which reduced prices and made traditional media relatively more attractive, perhaps also stimulated by a feeling that new media were more about price and deal, and traditional media more about brand building and brand equity.

Finally, and most importantly, post-Lehman and the several corporate crises, we have seen a concern, or even fear, amongst chairmen and CEOs and in the boardroom about making mistakes and a consequent emphasis on cost containment and unwillingness to add to fixed expenses or capacity. Western-based multinationals are said to have over $2 trillion in cash on their balance sheets, but unemployment remains at stubbornly high levels, with only increases in temporary employment and limited expansion of fixed capacity in Western markets. Hence, a willingness to invest in the brand and maintain or increase market share, rather than increasing capacity and fixed expenses.

In the third quarter constant currency revenues in the US were up 9.9%, which continued into the final quarter, with growth of 9.8%.

Together with this improved top-line growth, the Group has benefited from the cost actions taken, particularly towards the end of 2009, to adjust headcount and staff costs. As a result, headline PBIT margins have improved by 3.0 margin points before incentives and by 1.5 margin points after incentives. As mentioned earlier, headline PBIT margins in the second half of 2010 were above both the second half of 2009 and the second half of 2008, adjusted for the impact of TNS. Bonus pools have been refilled and, as a percentage of headline profit before bonuses and income from associates, are close to maximum levels.

On a like-for-like basis, average headcount has fallen by over 4%, compared with 2009, although given the substantial increase in like-for-like revenues of 8.0% in the second half of the year, our operating companies have begun to invest in more talent. Revenue conversion post-incentives, that is incremental profit as a proportion of incremental revenue, was very strong at 33%, as our operating companies benefited from the actions to reduce both staff costs and other operating costs in 2009 and during 2010.

Geographically, revenue growth continued to strengthen in the final quarter, particularly in the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Australia, with the US and Asia (excluding Australia and New Zealand) maintaining the strong growth seen in the third quarter. Western Continental Europe remained difficult, with growth in the final quarter of just over 3%, with France, Spain, Greece, Ireland and Belgium still under pressure. The US continued the strong growth seen in the third quarter, up 9.8%. The UK showed its strongest growth of the year at 9.7%. Latin America was up 6.5% in the fourth quarter in constant currency, but on a like-for-like basis was up almost 15%, reflecting the disposal of a call centre business in Argentina in September. Asia, excluding Australia and New Zealand, grew at 13.6%, which was the same as the third quarter. Mainland China and India continued their strong growth with revenue up over 18% and almost 15% respectively in the final quarter. Other major markets in Asia also showed strong growth, including South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and more surprisingly Japan, driven by Ogilvy, GroupM and Kantar.

Markets outside North America now account for 65% of our revenues, up from 61% five years ago. The influence of the faster-growing markets outside North America is increasing rapidly.

Constant currency revenue growth by geography (%)
Headline PBIT margins by geography (%)
2010 revenue by geography (%)

 

1
See definition in the Financial glossary.
2
The calculation of headline PBIT is set out in note 31 of the financial statements.