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Forget General Motors – Nielsen’s online currency metric will bail out Facebook

May 22, 2012

With Facebook’s share price in an 11% freefall (when I last looked), thank goodness for OCR. That’s what I say. And maybe it’s the mantra nervous Facebook investors should be chanting, too.

OCR? No not Optical Character Recognition, silly – Online Campaign Ratings. It’s the new Nielsen media metric with which the research giant hopes to corner the elusive online ‘currency’ market. And it’s being backed by one of the ad industry’s biggest traders, WPP’s GroupM – which is a good start if OCR is to gain credibility.

Acquiring a universally accepted trading ‘currency’ – sometimes referred to as a “gold standard” – is an important breakthrough for a new medium. No matter how fast it has been growing, or how trendy it has become, its effectiveness will be (rightly) disputed by advertisers and media traders alike in the absence of any agreed benchmark. The result being a tethered and volatile ratecard.

It might seem a fine distinction, but there is a world of difference between what we have at the moment – which is a medium whose value is defined by analytics – and one which is regulated by currency. Analytics are proprietary: they do not command universal respect and are therefore open to debate. The finer points of currency may certainly be subject to academic criticism (look at the BARB ratings system governing UK commercial TV) but no advertiser or trader seriously questions its status. If they did, we might have a pocket version of the euro-crisis on our hands.

With a currency in place, a behavioural change takes place in trading. The key word is “guarantee”. In the network TV market, for example, all three elements to the media deal – media owner, advertiser and trader – have sufficient confidence in the system to make “upfront” or forward commitments into the future, usually a year ahead. The guarantee is the delivery of a specific kind of  audience in sufficient numbers; failing which, a financial penalty will be imposed on the media owner and, increasingly, on the trader.

In that sense, AOL’s recent decision to offer guarantees on online advertising delivery, covering certain agreed demographics such as age, gender and social type, was highly significant.

As is GroupM’s proposal to make joint TV-digital “upfront” buys, the plan being to compensate any shortfall on the TV-side with OCR-defined ratings acquired from digital platforms.

So what has all this got to do with the Facebook share price? With over 900 million registered users, among them half the population of America, Facebook forms the backbone of the online display advertising market. No advertiser can easily afford to leave it off the schedule. Dean Evans, chief marketing officer of Subaru of America, is typical in his attitude: “If half the US population is on Facebook, you have to work it to learn it.” Hence Nielsen’s decision to make Facebook data its OCR “tentpole”.

But what if one of the world’s biggest advertisers defies the orthodoxy, and pulls out of Facebook display – what then? There’s no doubt that General Motors’ announcement last week has had a profoundly destabilising effect on Facebook, all the more so as it came shortly before the much-hyped market flotation.

Actually, GM spends very little of its advertising budget on Facebook display: about $10m a year out of an estimated $3bn. Indeed, it spends more on its Facebook pages ($30m a year in content provision), to which it says it is still firmly committed. But that’s not the point. What if other advertisers, taking GM’s lead, start a Gadarene rush to the Facebook exit? GM’s announcement has, in a nutshell, reinforced a growing conviction within the investment community that the Facebook IPO is “Muppets’ bait” (to use Business Insider founder Henry Blodget’s singular phrase).

In point of fact, many fellow advertisers (particularly those in the auto industry) see GM’s surprise move as motivated less by an ideological stance on Facebook display ratings than by its global chief marketing officer’s desperate determination to wring $2bn out of marketing costs over 5 years. Joel Ewanick (for it is he) has a well-attuned eye for catchy headlines, and few could have been more catchy – as the lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal clearly demonstrated – than his bombshell last week before the IPO.

But now that the second shoe has dropped, we have a better idea of what Ewanick is up to. He has just announced (to his favourite journalists at the WSJ again) – and presumably at his new media agency Carat’s behest – that the Super Bowl is way too expensive as well, and he won’t be participating in that either. Some doubt that he means exactly what he says. They believe he will only pass on the Super Bowl in the sense that Nike passes on the World Cup. But let’s put that aside for now. Taken at face value, what Ewanick is telling us is that neither Facebook nor the Super Bowl sell enough GM vehicles, because they are both massively overpriced.

That may well be trivially true. But display advertising has never been simply about shifting metal (or any other branded product for that matter). It’s also about maintaining and propagating your image. The question for Ewanick is not whether he can afford to skip Facebook and the Super Bowl, but for how long.


WPP hurls BRICbats at Publicis Groupe’s performance figures

February 11, 2012

An arcane row has broken out between agency behemoths WPP and Publicis Groupe over the latter’s claimed financial performance.

First, some necessary background to the dispute.

These days, only two things really matter for global agency holding companies presenting themselves in the annual financial beauty parade. Two things, that is, beyond a clean set of figures showing decent organic growth, enhanced operating margins and a handsome improvement in earnings per share (EPS).

They are: how much revenue is digital (as opposed to derived from ‘traditional’ advertising). And: how much comes from emerging economies.

The annual figures merely tell us how well the company has been stewarded in the recent past. But the other two criteria are much more exciting because they are predictive. Get them right and you tantalise shareholders with the thought of future gain, garner positive headlines in the financial media, boost the share price and – if you are one of the company’s most senior executives – make yourself still richer in the process.

By these standards, Publicis Groupe has just produced a corker. Never mind revenue growth of 5.7% to €5.8bn in near economic-blizzard conditions, or operating margins of 16%, or EPS up 14%. What really mattered to The Financial Times was a sound-bite: Publicis’ US digital revenues are set to overtake those of traditional media.

And to be fair, it is a pretty singular statistic considering that, as recently as 2006, digital was only 7% of PG’s revenue globally; now by comparison that global figure is nearly 31%.

“Digital” is of course shorthand for: our share of the pie in the only bit of the advertising economy still growing in developed economies, such as the USA and Europe.

Of no less importance as a corporate virility symbol is “emerging markets”, the geographical counterpart of “digital’s” sectoral dominance. Maximum bragging rights are accorded to those who can establish leadership in the most significant of these markets, the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

PG chief Maurice Lévy’s claim that 75% of group revenues will in the “pretty near future” be derived from a combination of digital and emerging markets such as “Brazil and China” is therefore music to the investment community’s ears.

Better still for investor returns, Lévy claims he will reach this milestone ahead of his rivals Omnicom and WPP.

Not surprisingly, these rivals are livid at the suggestion. So incensed in fact that WPP, for one, is challenging the factual evidence on which Lévy has built his ambitious projections.

It has dissected PG’s webcast financial presentation and done a slide-by-slide demolition of PG’s BRIC performance. I won’t bore you with all the details. But here’s the gist:

Slide 32, Brazil. Lévy mentioned last year that Brazil was PG’s 4th largest market. Now he’s saying it’s the 6th. What happened?

Slide 33, China. WPP takes issue with PG’s assertion that it will double its size in this all-important market by 2013, from a $200m 2010 revenue baseline. It says the ‘3 creative network leaders’ claim is a myth. R3 sourced figures actually put WPP and Omnicom agencies ahead of PG’s. Cannes performance also suggests WPP outguns Publicis. PG claims to be top in media buying: this is flatly disputed by WPP, which says RECMA figures prove it is overall leader in Greater China. The key argument, avers WPP, is over organic growth. Here, PG is achieving about 8.5% while WPP appears to be nearing 16% a year.

Slide 36, Russia. PG claims leadership in this market both in media (Vivaki) and creative (Leo Burnett and Publicis Worldwide). WPP asserts that there are no reliable creative rankings in Russia and where media is concerned it is emphatically on top with 28% share versus PG’s 23.2%, according to RECMA figures.

Slide 37, India. PG claims to be number one in new media business (Vivaki) and no 2 in creative (Leo Burnett), quoting R3 as the source. But R3 does not do a new business table for India, says WPP. PG claims strong positions in digital, healthcare and PR, but with no source attached. PG’s digital presence is “tiny” (says WPP), and it has made no recent acquisitions. As for media, according to RECMA, WPP’s GroupM has 42.7% share while Vivaki is 3rd with 9.4% share. Creatively, the latest Economic Times 2011 Brand Equity rankings for agencies (the only authoritative source on this subject) puts two WPP agencies Ogilvy and JWT first and second, while Burnett is 6th and Saatchi & Saatchi 17th.

It’s no surprise, of course, to find these two deadly rivals engaged in another slanging match, albeit disguised in high-falutin’ finance speak. What will be interesting is if Publicis has a riposte.

POSTSCRIPT. I note that, despite a strong set of figures and robust balance sheet, PG has maintained rather than increased its dividend. As Lévy explained, that’s because PG needs to hold on to all the cash it can in case it has to buy back up to €900m of Dentsu shares later this year. In view of recent developments, this seems highly likely.


I-Level default sends tremors through the industry

May 6, 2010

For those in marcoms, the descent of digital agency I-Level into administration has some alarming echoes of the sovereign debt crisis being played out in Greece.

Just a few short months ago, no one would have seriously contemplated the possibility of either event. Now, we’re beginning to worry that this portends the second leg of financial meltdown, and that a domino effect will ensue.

I don’t want to push the parallel too far, of course. I-Level’s management was always infinitely more competent than that of the Greek economy. Nonetheless, for those who had eyes to see it, this was a calamity waiting to happen. The detonator clock started ticking in February when I-Level, in alliance with Starcom MediaVest, lost out to WPP’s GroupM in a pitch for the COI’s £250m consolidated media planning/buying account. Up to that point, government digital media business accounted for £40m of I-Level’s billings, or about 40% of its revenue. Replacing a slug of income that big was never going to be easy, but the difficulty was exacerbated by I-Level’s financing mechanism. Private equity investors ECI bought a 60% chunk of the group in April 2008, as a precursor to its international expansion. The deal valued I-Level at about £46.5m, but had the effect of burdening it with debt of £32m – much of it redeemed at an unsustainable interest rate of 12%pa. Put another way, that meant the group had to earn pre-tax profits of at least £3m a year merely to cover its interest payments. Guess what? The punitive interest payments kicked in just as I-Level was beginning to lose business. And that was before the coup de grâce delivered by the COI.

Even so, its disappearance is a shock. Set up in 1999 by Andrew Walmsley and Charlie Dobres, I-Level had near-iconic status as one of the few first-wave digital agencies that surfed the dotcom bust and managed to retain its independence. Among its blue chip clients are Procter & Gamble, The Sun, Orange, Sky, Renault, Comet and Samsung. Its top brass, who are now all out of a job, include respected industry figures such as Walmsley himself, chief executive Steve Rust and chairman David Pattison. Up to 100 people are expected to be made redundant. I-Level’s demise is a warning, not merely to those who would sell out to private equity investors, but of the fragility of fortunes, even in the relatively buoyant digital sector.

UPDATE: RIP I-Level. The administrator, Zolfo Cooper, has liquidated I-Level. Media owners such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google will be faced with multi-million pound losses. It’s the biggest and most spectacular implosion of a high-profile agency since Yellowhammer went bust in 1990. The only part of I-Level to survive is the fast-growing social media operation, Jam, which was sold to Engine yesterday. That means about 20 staff out of a total of 120 have been reprieved.

ELSEWHERE IN ADLAND, I note the champagne corks are popping – and for good reason. DDB London learned this week that it had scooped the £75m Virgin Media account, previously with RKC&R/Y&R.

Woodford: Walking tall

Its understandably chipper chief executive Stephen Woodford tells me that the agency’s proposed integrated strategy was key to winning the business. Whatever, it’s not every day an agency wins an account that instantly boosts its income by 10%. And it gets better. DDB is heavily dependent upon international business, such as VW. Virgin is almost entirely domestic. It thus provides the London office with some valuable “shop window” advertising that should in time attract other local buyers.


Maxus wrests £75m BT media account from Starcom

February 17, 2010

Starcom has just lost the BT media account – probably its biggest in the UK outside Procter & Gamble and worth about £75m in billings – to Maxus, a subsidiary of GroupM.

The account has been something of a grudge match between media buying agencies owned by Publicis Groupe and WPP respectively. In a see-saw sequence of events, Starcom retained BT in a difficult pitch against Mediaedge:cia in late 2007, only to cede it to its adversary now.

Maxus, formerly BJK&E, is run  by MindShare UK’s old boss, Kelly Clark. I shall say nothing about fee negotiation, nor ‘Dutch auctions’, as I have little insight into the internal machinations involved in acquiring or losing this account. I do know, however, that Nick Theakstone and his UK team at GroupM, the nerve centre overseeing WPP’s media planning/buying agencies, spent over a year teeing this account up for Maxus. Suffice to note that BT is a big feather in the cap of whoever holds it.

GroupM is on something of a roll at the moment, having just won the long-running pitch for £250m-worth of consolidated media at COI and the £500m worldwide Bayer business.


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