Current progress and future prospects
The impact of the recession on the Group’s profitability in the first half was severe. Although action was taken to reduce staff and discretionary costs, such as travel, training and personal costs, as revenues came under pressure, this reduction was insufficient as revenues fell faster than budgeted. Like-for-like revenues were budgeted to fall by almost 4% in the first half of 2009 and fell, in fact, by over 8% with the deterioration against budget even greater in the second quarter, which was a surprise.
Further cost actions have been taken in the second quarter, which have also impacted profitability in the first half, through additional severance costs, but will improve the picture in the second half. As the recession has increasingly impacted Western Continental Europe, these severance payments have increased in a region where, statutory severance costs are customarily greater. The Group’s like-for-like headcount (down almost 6% compared with June 2008 and over 7% compared with July 2008) is now better balanced in comparison to the reduction in like-for-like revenues and the second-half is forecast to show a marked improvement in profitability, both absolutely and in terms of maintaining second half margins at prior years levels.
This relative improvement should be reinforced as we cycle easier like-for-like revenue comparatives. Sequential quarter-to-quarter comparisons are forecast to stabilise, as are year-to-year comparisons, just like recently-released country GDP figures. However, although there is little doubt that CEOs and CMOs feel better about the general economic environment, Armageddon or Apocalypse now having been averted, there is little evidence of better heads and stouter hearts translating into stronger order-books or investments – at least yet. Things look better, as they naturally should, partly because of easier comparatives.
Although it is still very early to budget or forecast what may happen in 2010, top line revenues will probably be “even Steven”, despite the positive impact of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the World Expo in Shanghai, the Asian Games in Guangzhou, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the mid-term Congressional elections in the US.
Plans, budgets and forecasts will be made on a conservative basis and considerable attention is still being focused on achieving margin and staff cost to revenue or gross margin targets. Margins remain strong in important parts of the business. In addition to influencing absolute levels of cost, the initiatives taken by the parent company in the areas` of human resources, property, procurement, information technology and practice development continue to improve the flexibility of the Group’s cost base. Flexible staff costs (incentives, freelancers and consultants), which remain at around 5% of revenues, continue to position the Group well in this downturn.
The Group continues to improve co-operation and co-ordination between companies in order to add value to our clients’ businesses and our people’s careers, an objective which has been specifically built into short-term incentive plans. Particular emphasis and success has been achieved in the areas of media investment management, healthcare, corporate social responsibility, government, new technologies, new markets, retailing, internal communications, financial services and media and entertainment. The Group continues to lead the industry, in co-ordinating investment geographically and functionally through parent company initiatives and winning Group pitches. Increasing co-operation, although more difficult to achieve in a multi-branded company which has grown by acquisition, than in an organically grown uni-branded one, remains a priority.
Despite the current environment, the Group also continues to concentrate on its long-term targets and strategic objectives of improving operating profits by 10-15%; improving operating margins by half to one margin point per annum or more depending on revenue growth; improving staff cost to revenue or gross margin ratios by 0.6 margin points per annum or more depending on revenue growth; converting 25-33% of incremental revenue to profit; growing revenue faster than industry averages and encouraging co-operation among Group companies.
As clients face an increasingly undifferentiated market place, particularly in mature markets, the Group is competitively well positioned to offer them the creativity they desire, along with the ability to deliver the most effective co-ordinated communications in the most efficient manner. The Group’s performance this year at the Cannes Advertising Festival was particularly pleasing – second as a Group for the second year in succession, but with the gap to first place narrowing.
As the recession abates and relative performance becomes easier, the Group’s strategic focus on new markets, new media and consumer insight will become even more important. Clients will be increasingly looking for growth, advice and resources in the BRICS and Next 11, in digital communications and in understanding consumer motivations.