2019 was the weakest year for agency growth since the Great Recession. But the bad news is 2020
If and when.
John Wren’s ominous April memo to Omnicom Group employees warning of “furloughs and staff reductions across many of our agencies” presaged a dark period for advertising.
“Where possible,” Omnicom’s CEO wrote, “our agencies will use furloughs rather than permanent reductions, so we can bring people back if, and when, conditions improve and client demand recovers.”
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the economy—and agencies—into a deep downturn. History suggests agency employment won’t hit bottom until months or even years after a recession ends.
John Rogers, WPP’s newly appointed chief financial officer, offered a stark view on a late April investor call.
“We don’t know the impact and the longevity of COVID-19, but what we have done is developed a range of possible economic scenarios with different levels of net sales progression and decline,” Rogers said. “And we’ve got detailed plans against each one of those scenarios to take cost out accordingly as well as very good early indicators in the business to inform us to what we would need to accelerate taking those costs out.”
The biggest expense? Labor. Staff costs in 2019 were equal to 65.4 percent of WPP’s revenue less pass-through costs.
And even before the pandemic hit, big changes were afoot. Accenture Interactive, which in 2019 bought creative standout Droga5 (Ad Age’s newly crowned Agency of the Decade), displaced Interpublic Group of Cos. as the world’s fourth-largest agency company. Consulting rivals Deloitte Digital, PwC Digital Services and IBM iX all rank in the top 10.
For the agency business, last year now looks blissfully mediocre compared to the current depressing state. Overall U.S. agency revenue rose a tepid 1.2 percent in 2019, the weakest growth since the Great Recession. (For reference, U.S. agency revenue tumbled 7.5 percent in 2009, the sharpest drop since Ad Age published the first Agency Report in 1945.)
The agency revenue growth rate is based on Ad Age Datacenter’s bottom-up analysis of organic growth for major agency companies and stated or estimated pro forma growth for other agencies in Ad Age Agency Report 2020. Organic growth strips out acquisitions, divestitures and the effects of exchange rates.
Total 2019 U.S. revenue for the more than 400 agencies and agency networks tracked in this Agency Report came to $55.2 billion.
Digital revenue for agencies from all disciplines increased 3.4 percent, the slowest growth since 2009.
Digital work accounted for 54 percent of 2019 U.S. revenue for agencies from all disciplines in this Agency Report, according to Ad Age Datacenter’s analysis. That’s double the percentage of a decade ago, but digital’s share growth last year—up 0.4 percentage points from 53.6 percent in 2018—was the smallest gain since Ad Age began tracking digital’s share of agency revenue in 2009. As the digital market matures and evolves, agencies no longer can bank on strong digital growth to counter slippage in non-digital work.
Among the world’s Big Five legacy agency companies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Interpublic, Dentsu), only one—Dentsu Group—now discloses in its earnings presentations how much of its business comes from digital services. The company says digital accounted for 47.5 percent of worldwide revenue less cost of sales in 2019. It says digital accounted for 59.9 percent of business in 2019 for Dentsu Aegis Network, which manages operations outside Japan.
U.S. health care revenue for agencies grew a robust 7.3 percent, the biggest gain of any discipline. Omnicom, which operates the largest U.S. health care marketing network, reported 9.5 percent worldwide organic growth in 2019 from health care, the highest growth at Omnicom for any discipline.
Revenue for U.S. ad agencies rose 1.4 percent, slow growth in 2019 (but an improvement from 2018’s paltry 0.4 percent growth).
Revenue for media agencies, excluding digital work, fell 2.6 percent, which reflects a weaker market for traditional advertising.
Revenue at public relations agencies grew 1.5 percent, while agency revenue in customer relationship management/direct marketing slipped 1.2 percent.
Promotion agency revenue edged up 0.9 percent. Experiential/event marketing, a subset of promotion, increased 1.1 percent. (Experiential this year has been decimated by COVID cancellations of conventions, auto shows and the like, making 2020 uneventfully bad.)
Publicis Groupe last July plunked down $4.45 billion for data play Epsilon, the industry’s biggest deal since 2013. But agency holding companies have figured out that bigger isn’t always better, and they are working to streamline organizational structures and prune their vast portfolios.
WPP’s annual SEC regulatory report for 2019, filed late last month, included an unaccustomed statement from a holding company bolted together by decades of deals: “There were no material acquisitions completed in the year.”
WPP in December sold a majority stake in Kantar, its market research business, to Bain Capital. During the year, WPP offloaded 22 “non-core businesses”—including its namesake original business, basket and household products manufacturer Wire and Plastic Products.
Omnicom is taking a hard look at underperformers. Wren in April told analysts the company “will continue to evaluate our portfolio of agencies to identify businesses that are non-core or underperforming for potential realignment or disposition.”