If yesterday's tape bomb came courtesy of the most prominent UK subprime lender, Provident Financial, which plunged over 70% after it gave a "clearly awful" business update coupled with the resignation of its CEO, today's market shock belongs to ad giant, WPP, whose shares crashed the most since 2000 after the world’s largest advertising company cut full-year revenue forecast amid lower spending by customers, while reporting dreadful Q2 earnings.
In a clear warning to ad-dependent tech behemoths such as Google and Facebook, or rather their shareholders, WPP stock plunged as much as 12% after the company again slashed its revenue guidance, which is now expected to be between zero and 1% in 2017.
That’s down from an earlier 2% forecast. Just five months ago, in March, WPP, which owns advertising agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather, Grey Global, and JWT, suffered its biggest drop since the financial crisis when it gave its initial forecast for 2% growth, the slowest pace since 2009. Now that number is down to 0%.
It wasn't just the company's forecast: in the second quarter, WPP’s "like-for-like" net sales fell 0.5% with July declining 2.6% and North America and Western Continental Europe were the poorest performing regions, according to Bloomberg. Worse, constant currency billings plunged 4.7% Y/Y, confirming just how little pricing power even the biggest market players in the field have. Q2 results confirmed unexpectedly weaker industry trends highlighted previously by U.S. competitor Interpublic.
The company, which according to analysts laid out dismal earnings and "terrible guidance", blamed populist politics in the UK and US, fake news on platforms like Facebook and Google, and short-term thinking in business, for the terrible start to the year.
WPP also blamed "technological disruption, cheap money, activist investors and zero-based budgeting models, which focus incumbents on short-term profitability and cost control," for putting companies off advertising and marketing. WPP said this is particularly an issue in the consumer goods sector, which accounts for a third of its revenues. As a result, 2017 has so far been "much tougher" than 2016, which was a record year for the business.
In the last year or so, growth has become even more difficult to find, perhaps due to increasing social, political and economic volatility, for example with the rise of populism typified by surprise election results in the United Kingdom and the United States and bumpy growth in three of the bigger BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia and China, although India continues to develop rapidly, despite introductions of demonetisation and a General Sales Tax.
Even the growth of the digital marketplace has been dogged by issues such as measurability, viewability, fraud, and fake news, let alone the duopoly of Google and Facebook and the growing dominance of Amazon in so many spheres, including, but not exclusively, ecommerce, retail, cloud computing and content.
In a slower growth world, both more recently and post-Lehman, inflation has been negligible, perhaps also suppressed by digital deflation. As a result, clients have markedly less pricing power and finance and procurement departments are very focused on cost. In this world, it is, perhaps, not surprising that clients have reduced spending.
It's not just WPP: advertising companies worldwide have been hit as brand clients like Unilever and Procter & Gamble focus on cost-cutting to cope with sluggish global economic growth and technological disruption. WPP singled out a decline in ad spending on consumer goods - items such as laundry detergent and toothpaste that make up about one-third of its revenue - as coming under particular pressure. As previously reported, Unilever, one of WPP’s biggest customers, said earlier this year that it would cut ad spending by up to 30% and cut the number of creative agencies it works with to 1,500 from 3,000. That followed a failed takeover bid by Kraft-Heinz, which was the “seminal” moment in the first quarter, according to WPP Chief Executive Officer Martin Sorrell.
“That sent a shock-wave through the industry,” Sorrell told Bloomberg by phone. “It obviously had an effect in terms of people spending, particularly in the packaged goods sector.”
Martin Sorrell, WPP Chairman and CEO
Following the dismal news, WPP comp Publicis dropped 2.9% in Paris, while IPG and Omnicom are set for a lower open in the US. Shares of European television companies including TF1, ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE and ITV Plc declined as well.
Meanwhile back to WPP, the company has already seen its shares slide 12% YTD amid "a difficult economic climate and pressure on its businesses in North America." Today's plunge has chopped off 20% of its market cap in 2017 while its biggest rivals, including Interpublic Group of Cos., Publicis Groupe SA and Omnicom Group Inc., are each down more than 8% this year. So far, names like Google and FaceBook have remained unscathed but one wonders how long before cost-cutting advertisers slash online spending next.
In the most troubling sign, however, and reminiscent of what Dick's CEO said when he warned about the pricing and market share "panic" gripping retailers, the ad giant blamed also said that competitors are turning to discounts and inducements to try and win business, saying: "These practices cannot last and will only result eventually in poor financial performance and further consolidation, the premium being on long-term profitable growth. Our industry may be in danger of losing the plot."
"For the short-term, therefore, we have to weather the storm," CEO Martin Sorrell said hoping to focus on efficiency, new high-growth markets, digital marketing, and "technology, data, and content."
Whether or not it can achieve that depends on both the economy, and what its competitors do. And while we wait to find out, here is a recap of the sellside's unhappy response to WPP's numbers, courtesy of BLoomberg.
- Results “a clear miss” on organic growth and net sales; margins up less than expected
- Margin improvement guidance not sustainable if growth remains slow into 2018, keeping talent and investing will be costly and required
- Estimate revisions likely to be modest with recent positive currency exchange rates and unchanged margin guidance
- Remains cautious on stock and generally the industry
- Results show pressure on client spend and a weaker performance across all regions and segments
- Deteriorating trading conditions are a concern; “minded to trim” FY pretax profit forecasts by 4%-5% to reflect the weaker outlook
- Current valuation already reflects a weakening outlook following recent share price decline
- Scale of the negative surprise is “unwelcome”
- Nature of pressure is relatively narrow, even if deeper than originally feared
- Even as headline shock is painful, the impact on consensus estimates is likely to be comparatively limited
- Notes margin outlook maintained, which speaks to “relatively orderly” pressure on revenue, co. being comparatively well prepared
- Sees 2%-3% downgrade risk to consensus EPS
- Some of the weakness expected, report still “an incremental disappointment”
- 2Q organic net sales disappointing, July weak and behind the budget
- Results confirm weak trends seen across advertising companies/TV, with ad spending cuts in fast-moving consumer goods being the common driver
- Key question whether pick-up in organic growth from 2H is credible
- Goldman sees new organic growth guidance as “achievable,” based on comments by several consumer goods companies on higher ad spending in 2H, easier comparables, recent improvement in WPP’s new business performance