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Paid-for content: essential for survival

Web activity, broadly defined, currently accounts for well over $4 billion of WPP’s revenues, or 29%. It is growing rapidly and will continue to challenge us and our clients. There are a number of reasons for this.

One is disintermediation, an ugly but useful word. Let’s take an example from our own business. More than $4 billion of WPP’s revenues (post-TNS) comes from market research. Traditionally, research has been done on the phone and through the post. The process was long and cumbersome. A questionnaire had to be designed, distributed and filled in by consumers or interviewers. Then data were collected, analysed and conclusions developed. That could take three to six months. Many CEOs despaired that by the time the solution had been identified, the problem had changed. Using the internet, however, the research process can be transformed and responses obtained almost instantly. WPP’s Lightspeed panel interrogates more than 17 million consumers globally and can deliver answers inside 24 hours. You may also be disintermediated by lower-cost business models. The gambling industry, for instance, has been shaken by the emergence of peer-to-peer sports betting sites, cutting out the traditional bookmaker.

Despite the relatively recent vicious compression in valuations and consequent losses, the financiers of new media and technology companies still focus on sales, sales growth and market share, rather than on operating profits, margins, earnings per share and return on capital employed. The hour of reckoning, however, could be coming for some Web 2.0 companies. All, or virtually all, depend on advertising revenues for their growth and survival. There will be losers in the battle to capture those revenues and we may have already reached a point in the investment cycle where revenues, operating profits and cash flow become paramount. Financing institutions and strategic investors may no longer continue to support excessive valuations by re-financing cash burn, particularly after a financial crisis. Even venture capital companies will be more picky about matching or raising pricing in the next round of financings and may cut off funding altogether and admit their mistake. In 2010, AOL sold Bebo, the social network site it bought in 2008 for $850 million, to Criterion Capital Partners for an estimated $10 million.

These conundrums, however, are nothing compared to those faced by traditional media owners, few of whom have managed to deal with new technologies. Take Craigslist, for example. Established in 1995 by Craig Newmark, the site provides largely free classified advertising to millions of users across the globe. The result – a massive reduction in classified advertising revenues for the traditional players. It is estimated that Craigslist costs newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area alone up to $65 million a year in lost employment advertising.

The response from traditional classified advertisers is to produce their own free classified sites. The effect: a permanent reduction in classified advertising revenues, as established classified media owners justify their activities as necessary cannibalisation. If they don’t eat their own children, someone else will. The internet is probably the most democratic phenomenon we have seen: free information or nearly free information breaking the tyranny or monopoly of distance.

Few newspaper or periodical publishers have mastered the connection with the new internet platforms. Rupert Murdoch’s rapid purchase of internet assets such as MySpace was one example, although it quickly lost its lead to Facebook. Similar initiatives have come from network television: NBC owned by GE with iVillage, and ITV in the UK with Friends Reunited (since revoked). Others such as The New York Times have made similar moves, but none seem to have been able to replace the lost revenues by new ones. For several years in our Annual Report we have questioned whether NBC would still be a part of GE in a few years. Would it be sold or spun-off? Would it merge with Yahoo! or another internet company? In 2009, we found out the answer – a sale to Comcast. Will even The New York Times survive or face the fate of some US newspapers? The Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. The San Francisco Chronicle, whose owners have warned of a sale or closure, claims to have improved its finances with a new business model, while the Seattle P-I has gone wholly online. Hence the recent shift from Rupert Murdoch to New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr for subscription-based models.

It is no longer enough just to be in the newspaper or network television business; you have to be in the communications business. This idea is not dissimilar to Professor Theodore Levitt’s analysis of the horse and buggy in the context of the transportation industry. Rupert Murdoch is one of the few who seems to understand this. Perhaps the mistake was not to charge for newspaper content on the web in the first place. It is easier to take the consumer down in price, rather than up. If you can’t charge for content as strong as Condé Nast’s Vogue or The Wall Street Journal, for example, when can you? Now media owners seem to have shifted gears, deciding finally to charge for online content – with Murdoch leading the way, Sulzberger and others have finally realised the need. Paying for content, further media consolidation and the possible subsidy of traditional content by government are all current trends that will probably continue to develop. The internet has resulted in a permanent reduction in the revenues and profitability of traditional media owners, but if consumers value content they will pay for it.

Clients are re-examining the relative levels of their advertising and marketing services investment. The econometric analysis of media investment is becoming increasingly important. How much should we spend and through which media, have become ever more critical questions – the Holy Grail of advertising, the answer to which half of advertising is wasted.

  Increasingly, our business is about combining the full range of our marketing and communications creativity, insights and skills with the application of technology and the mastery of data. 

The application of technology and the data it provides are important components to succeed in the new technology-based media. We had already invested through WPP Digital, GroupM, Kantar and our direct and interactive businesses, such as Wunderman, OgilvyOne and G2, before purchasing 24/7 Real Media. This was more than the acquisition of a digital agency – such as the acquisition of jewels like AGENDA, Aqua, Blast Radius, Bridge, BLUE or Schematic. This was about the development of search technology, advertiser and publisher websites, the application of technology in general and media sales, and followed, on a much smaller and less lavish scale, Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick and Microsoft’s purchase of aQuantive, although all had the same proportional impact on WPP, Google and Microsoft.

Chart showing percentage of fortune global 100 companies with social media
Percentage of Fortune Global 100 companies with...
  2010 2011
Twitter Accounts 65 77
Facebook pages 54 61
YouTube channels 50 57
Corporate blogs 33 36
Chart showing global companies using at least one social media platform
PGlobal companies using at least one social media platform (%)
  2010 2011
Global 65 77
Asia Pacific 54 61
Europe 50 57
US 33 36
Chart showing global companies using all 4 social media platforms
Global companies using all four platforms (%)
  2010 2011
Global 20 25
Asia Pacific 25 33
Europe 15 15
US 28 34
Chart showing number of accounts per company
Number of accounts per company
  2010 2011
Twitter accounts 4.2 5.8
Facebook pages 2.1 4.2
YouTube channels 1.6 2.7
Corporate blogs 4.2 6.8
Source: Burson-Marsteller

With enough investment, we can reproduce any of the media planning and buying technology developed and have already accessed search revenues effectively. Unlike most media owners, we are not investing in a single technology or making technological bets. We are purveyors of any and all media investment alternatives and, as long as we are not excluded from any single, powerful technology and have the talent to analyse and optimize these alternatives for our clients, we will remain not only relevant but increasingly valuable to them. In contrast, media owners, unless they cover the media waterfront, are exposed to one technology or another. Increasingly, our business is about combining the full range of our marketing and communications creativity, insights and skills with the application of technology and the mastery of data.

Warren Buffett used to say in the 1970s, when he invested directly in IPG and Ogilvy (at three times earnings), that agencies represented a royalty on the international growth equity of US-based multinationals. Perhaps today, parent company investment also represents a royalty on the growth of new media technologies.

The internet and other new technologies will affect another area – recruitment. Young, bright talent will always seek out new, flexible, un-bureaucratic, responsive companies. Staying with one company for 40 years or so – as my father did and my parents advised me to do – no longer seems the best career choice. Clearly, the era of apprenticeship inside large corporations is finished. It was weakened by the corporate downsizing of the 1980s and 1990s, the final nail in the coffin coming with the internet boom of the late 1990s. However, some recent polling and attitudinal analysis in the UK shows younger people want a better work-life balance. Hedge funds, for instance, have until recently proved more attractive than investment banks, offering fixed work times and not demanding all-night toil, while making massive trades.

After the bankruptcies and failures of Web 1.0, many young people returned to the more traditional businesses they had left. WPP lost a number of such bright talents and later welcomed some back to the fold. I conducted re-entry interviews, and hoped to hear that the returnees were relieved to have their jobs back. Far from it: few grovelled. Worse, they admitted that given the opportunity again, they would take it or seize a similar one. And recently, in the last year or two, with the emergence of the second internet boom, it is clear there is another wave of bright, young people attracted to new technologies and opportunities within those companies.