The outlook for 2012

2012 may well have a pattern similar to 2011. Forecasts of worldwide real GDP growth still hover around 3.5% with inflation of 2% giving nominal GDP growth of 5.5%. Advertising as a proportion of GDP should at least remain constant, as it is still at relatively depressed historical levels, particularly in mature markets, post-Lehman, and grow at a similar rate to GDP. The three maxi-quadrennial events of 2012, the UEFA Football Championships in Central and Eastern Europe, the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in London and last, but not least, the US Presidential election in November should underpin industry growth by 1% alone this year. Some commentators, including our own, estimate $7-8 billion of political spending in the US alone.

Both consumers and corporates are likely to continue to be cautious and fearful, but should continue to purchase or invest in brands in both fast- and slow-growth markets. In addition, although there may not have been the required strong political leadership in the Eurozone, it is just possible that Europe will muddle through the current crisis, without a catastrophic failure, although the Iranian and Middle-Eastern situation poses another threat to global stability and oil prices. Some worry about Chinese growth rates and hard landings, although we see little let-up in Mainland China (in the first three months of 2012, China revenues are up 16% like-for-like) and believe the worst case is a soft landing, particularly following the strategies laid out in the 12th Five Year Plan – stressing consumption, social security and service industries.

In 2012, our prime focus will remain on growing revenues and gross margin faster than the industry average, driven by our leading position in the new markets, in new media, in consumer insight, including data analytics and the application of technology, creativity and ‘horizontality’. New markets, new media and consumer insight account respectively for 29%, 30% and 25% of the Group’s revenues of over $16 billion, demonstrating the success of our strategic focus.

  • Chart showing 2011 Digital revenue versus peers
    Peer digital revenue $bn according to Advertising Age %s applied to FY US$ revenue.
    Share owners by geography %
    UK 36
    US 35
    Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe 29
  • Chart showing 2011 revenue by geography versus peers
    Sourced from 2011 company presentations. Central & Eastern Europe estimated as 3% of revenue.

    Assumed non-Euro countries in Europe are 3% of revenue and Canada is 1.5% of revenue.

    Assumed $1=€0.71 based on the average for 2011.

    Assumed Canada is 1.5% of revenue.
    Share owners by type* %
    Institutional investors 95
    Employees 2
    Other individuals 3

At the same time, we will concentrate on meeting our operating margin objectives by managing absolute levels of costs and increasing our flexibility in order to adapt our cost structure to significant market changes. 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. Additionally, flexible staff costs (including incentives, freelance and consultants) have returned close to historic highs of around 7% of revenues, giving some protection in case market conditions change.

The budgets for 2012 have been prepared on a conservative basis, as usual, reflecting the faster-growing geographical markets of Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa and Central and Eastern Europe and faster-growing functional sectors of Advertising, Media Investment Management and direct, digital and interactive to some extent moderated by the slower growth in the mature markets of the US and Western Europe. Our 2012 budgets show like-for-like revenue and gross margin growth of around 4% and a target operating margin improvement of 0.5 margin points. 

Incentive plans for 2012 will continue to emphasise revenue (particularly in the mature markets of our custom consumer insight businesses) and operating profit growth in conjunction with operating margin improvement, although objectives will continue to include qualitative Group objectives, including coordination and co-operation, talent management and succession planning.

At the time of writing, we have revenue and profit data for the first three months of 2012. The Group has started the year well, with like-for-like revenue and gross margin for the first three months both up 4%. Geographically, we continue to see strong growth in Asia Pacific and Latin America and modestly better growth in the mature Western and Continental Europe markets. By sector, Advertising and Media Investment Management remains strong and Consumer Insight is showing an improvement in growth compared with the fourth quarter of 2011. These trends are in line with our budgets, which also indicate a broadly steady rate of growth throughout the year, albeit with the usual conservatism in quarter four. Operating profits were above budget.

One of the clouds on the horizon may, however, be 2013. There will be no maxi- or mini-quadrennial events in that year. It now seems more likely that President Obama will be re-elected and will have to confront the intimidating US budget deficit, whilst dealing with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and/or Senate. Legislative gridlock may continue at a time when ‘kicking the can’ down the road may no longer be viable. Some hope that a re-elected President becomes more concerned with his legacy.

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