Despite Strong Second-Quarter Results, Sorrell Says WPP Must Integrate Better

WPP Revenue Up 3.5% to $5.3 Billion in Second Quarter

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Martin Sorrell
Martin Sorrell Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

WPP reported like-for-like revenues up 3.5% to $5.3 billion in the second quarter of 2016, compared with the same period last year.

Second-quarter revenues grew 2.2% in North America, with advertising and media investment management performing strongest, while healthcare was the most challenging sector.

In the traditionally fast-growing areas of Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe, revenues were up 3.4%. India was the standout performer with like-for-like net sales growth of more than 17% in the second quarter, although Greater China saw negative sales and revenue figures across the entire first half.

Speaking at a presentation to analysts in London, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell said, "Brazil, Russia and China will come back. On China we remain bullish, if not ragingly bullish. Brazil will take two or three years… and Russia is longer term." Jokingly, he added, "It depends what happens. If Donald Trump wins the presidency, he'll have a wonderful relationship with President Putin and everything will be solved."

In the U.K. – WPP's home market – revenue growth slowed from 4.7% in the first quarter to 3.5% in the second quarter, held back by concerns about the Brexit vote. Mr. Sorrell warned that uncertainty over the U.K.'s relationship with the EU could still lead the country into a recession.

WPP's fastest-growing region was western continental Europe (which makes up 20% of the group's business), where Germany and France were the best performing markets, and second-quarter like-for-like revenue growth reached 6.2%.

WPP claimed new-business wins of nearly $3 billion in the first half of 2016, up from $2 billion in the same period of the previous year.

Despite the strong set of results – which sent WPP's share price up by 5% on the London Stock Exchange this morning – Mr. Sorrell spent time dwelling on the group's weaknesses, admitting that there had been "setbacks."

He said [of two recent account losses], "We are very disappointed with AT&T and VW. VW was understandable because we held the business for 18 or 19 years and the company was undergoing some challenges.

"In the case of AT&T, I think… we were too unlocked in terms of integrating. The second thing is we have probably been a little bit too complex in our offering and therefore difficult to deal with in that sense… We have not integrated data and analytics. It's not just in relation to AT&T but in one or two other situations we've seen where we have not been locked together enough.

"But I've heard, to be blunt with you, in two cases – one of which was AT&T – that we had not used data analytics as well as our competition, and that was particularly bruising because it's a very strong element of what we do. We should be more integrated in the back office and we have to be more integrated in the front office. The danger on integration is going too fast. It is a gradual process… it has to be handled quite delicately and not abusively and not too quickly."

Asked whether WPP might take a more aggressive integration step, along the lines of Publicis Groupe [which last year restructured its agency networks into four hubs], he answered, "Publicis is banging businesses together, which is precisely what you shouldn't do."

Mr. Sorrell revealed that WPP had been looking at acquiring sports marketing group Learfield Communications, but said it was "probably too big and too expensive." He emphasized that the group's focus is away from large acquisitions and toward integration.

Mr. Sorrell concluded, "The prize is there. The question is, how do we execute it in a more effective way? It's also about narrative and how you describe it, which may sound lightweight, but these presentations tend to be concentrated into a very short period of time and it sometimes depends on whether you got up the right way in the morning."

Mr. Sorrell also admitted that mobile is still a challenge for WPP. "Agencies have to do better on creative work. We have to understand the medium. I certainly did not sit in front of my TV for the Olympics. I used my mobile… but getting used to that small screen is really important," he said.

Brian Lesser, GroupM's North America CEO, was brought in to address the analysts via satellite link, along with his chairman, Irwin Gotlieb – even though the presentation started at 4.30 a.m. EST.

Mr. Lesser said, "We have to improve the creative format in mobile in order to really achieve potential. The other thing is targetability. In the programmatic space, for example, mobile was always a bit of a black hole for us because of the absence of cookies, but as we improve technology around identifying users on their mobile devices – and across devices – we will improve the advertising experience, not just in traditional formats but also delivering sponsored content."

Mr. Sorrell also questioned digital growth, saying it could be affected by the issues of viewability, ad fraud measurement and ad blocking. "There's no doubt that some clients are looking at whether they have over-invested in some of the new media alternatives," he said.

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