NEW YORK & LONDON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--WPP (NYSE:WPP) today reported its 2017 Preliminary Results.
Commenting on the 2017 results announcement Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, said:
“2017 for us was not a pretty year, with flat like-for-like, top-line growth, and operating margins and operating profits also flat, or up marginally.
“The major factors influencing this performance were probably the long-term impact of technological disruption and more the short-term focus of zero-based budgeters, activist investors and private equity than, we believe, the suggested disintermediation of agencies by Google and Facebook or digital competition from consultants.
“In this environment, the most successful agency groups will be those who offer simplicity and flexibility of structure to deliver efficient, effective solutions – and therefore growth – for their clients. With this in mind, we are now accelerating the implementation of our strategy for the Group.
“No company in the world of marketing or business transformation has a greater or more varied repertory of talent and capabilities than WPP. Our strength, however, resides not only in the scale and variety of those skills, but in our unique ability to combine them in service of our clients’ growth – which is why most of the world’s leading companies choose WPP to provide them with communications services.
“For many years we have placed ‘horizontality’ at the heart of our strategy by presenting clients with tailor-made and seamlessly integrated offers to meet their specific requirements. Over the last year, we have begun to apply that philosophy to the structure of the Group itself by simplifying a number of our operations.
“As our industry continues to undergo fundamental change, we are upping the pace of WPP’s development from a group of individual companies to a cohesive global team dedicated to the core purpose of driving growth for clients.
“As we build an increasingly unified WPP, we are focusing on a number of areas that will allow us to deploy our deep expertise with greater flexibility, efficiency and speed. These include: further simplification of our structure; stronger client co-ordination across the whole of WPP, including greater responsibility and authority for global client teams and country managers; the development of key cross-Group capabilities in digital marketing, digital production, eCommerce and shopper marketing; further sharing of functions, systems and platforms across the Group; and the development and implementation of senior executive incentives to align them even more closely to Group performance.
“We start this new phase of our journey from a position of market leadership, and with total confidence in the enduring value of what we offer our clients. We will report at every opportunity on our progress.”
|Revenue less pass-through costs1||13,140||6.0%||1.4%||12,398|
|Revenue less pass-through costs1 margin||17.3%||-0.1*||0.0*||17.4%|
|Profit before tax||2,109||11.6%||7.7%||1,891|
|Profit after tax||1,912||27.4%||22.6%||1,502|
Headline diluted EPS6
|Dividends per share||60.0p||6.0%||6.0%||56.60p|
* Margin points, also flat like-for-like
Full Year highlights
- Reported billings at £55.563 billion, down 3.9% in constant currency and down 5.4% like-for-like
- Reported revenue growth of 6.1%, with like-for-like growth of -0.3%, 1.9% growth from acquisitions and 4.5% from currency
- Constant currency revenue growth in all regions, led by strong growth in the United Kingdom and growth in Western Continental Europe and Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & the Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe. Sectors, including advertising and media investment management showed strong growth along with public relations and public affairs and sub-sector specialist communications (including direct, digital and interactive). Data investment management and sub-sectors brand consulting and health & wellness were softer
- Constant currency revenue less pass-through costs1 growth in all regions, especially the United Kingdom and except North America. All sectors, especially advertising and media investment management were up, except data investment management. On a full year basis, the gap in the growth rates between revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 was fairly consistent at 0.2%
- Headline EBITDA of £2.534 billion, up 4.7%, and up 1.2% in constant currency, reflecting full year currency tailwinds, which moderated significantly in the second half of the year
- Headline PBIT increase of 4.9% to £2.267 billion, up 1.5% in constant currency, again reflecting currency tailwinds in the full year, which moderated in the second half of the year, with staff costs increasing faster, offset to some degree by control of general & administrative costs, including establishment costs
- Revenue less pass-through costs1 margin, a more helpful comparator than revenue margin down 0.1 margin points, but still a leading industry margin of 17.3% and flat in constant currency and like-for-like, in-line with the revised target guidance after quarter three
- Exceptional gains of £129 million, largely representing the gain on the sale of the Group’s minority interests in Asatsu-DK to Bain Capital and Infoscout to Vista Equity Partners. A 25% equity interest in Asatsu-DK may be purchased shortly at a cost of approximately $60 million
- Headline diluted EPS of 120.4p up 6.4%, up 2.7% in constant currency and reported diluted EPS up 31.9%, up 26.9% in constant currency, the latter reflecting the benefit of an exceptional tax credit of £206 million
- Final ordinary dividend of 37.3p up 0.7% and full year dividends of 60.0p per share up 6.0%
- Dividend pay-out ratio of 50% in 2017, the same as 2016 and in line with the targeted dividend pay-out ratio of 50%
- Return on equity8 up significantly at 16.9% in 2017, compared with 16.2% in 2016, versus a lower weighted average cost of capital of 6.3% in 2017 compared with 6.4% in 2016.
- Average net debt up £584 million, at £5.143 billion compared to last year, at 2017 exchange rates, continuing to reflect the significant net acquisition spend, share re-purchases and dividends of £1.485 billion in 2017
- Creative and effectiveness leadership recognised yet again in 2017 with the award of the Cannes Lion to WPP for most creative Holding Company for the seventh successive year since the award’s inception. Three WPP agency networks, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Y&R and Grey finished in the top six networks at Cannes in 2017, in positions two, four and six. For the sixth consecutive year, WPP was also awarded the EFFIE as the most effective Holding Company
- Continued implementation of growth strategy with revenue ratios for fast growth markets and new media raised to 40-45% over the next three to four years, and currently at around 30% and over 40% respectively. Quantitative revenue target of 50% already achieved
Current trading and outlook
- January 2018 | Like-for-like revenue flat with last year for the month, slightly ahead of budget, with like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs1, down 1.2%, also ahead of budget and against more difficult comparatives in the first quarter of last year
- FY 2018 budget | Given optimistic revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 forecasting in the last three quarters of 2017 and so as to ensure costs are more effectively controlled, the budgets for 2018, on a like-for-like basis, have been set at around flat for both revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1, with a headline operating margin target also flat, in constant currency
- Dual focus in 2018 | 1. Revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth from leading position in horizontality, faster growing geographic markets and digital, premier parent company creative and effectiveness position, new business and strategically targeted acquisitions; 2. Continued emphasis on balancing revenue growth with headcount increases and improvement in staff costs/revenue less pass-through costs1 ratio to enhance operating margins
- Long-term targets | Above industry revenue growth, due to effective implementation of horizontality, geographically superior position in new markets and functional strength in new media, data investment management, including data analytics and the application of new technology, creativity, effectiveness and horizontality; improvement in staff costs/revenue less pass-through costs1 ratio of 0 - 0.2 margin points or more depending on revenue less pass-through costs1 growth; revenue less pass-through costs1 operating margin expansion of 0 - 0.3 margin points or more on a constant currency basis, with an ultimate goal of almost 20%; and headline diluted EPS growth of 5% to 10% p.a. from revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth, margin expansion, strategically targeted small- and medium-sized acquisitions and share buy-backs
In this press release not all of the figures and ratios used are readily available from the unaudited preliminary results included in Appendix 1. These non-GAAP measures, including constant currency and like-for-like growth, revenue less pass-through costs1 and headline profit measures, management believes are both useful and necessary to better understand the Group’s results. Where required, details of how these have been arrived at are shown in the Appendices.
Review of Group results
Revenue and Revenue less pass-through costs1
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||
Revenue less pass-through costs1 analysis
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||∆ constant||∆ LFL||Acquisitions||2016|
Reported billings at £55.563 billion, up 0.6%, down 3.9% in constant currency and down 5.4% like-for-like. Estimated net new business billings of $6.330 billion were won in the year, continuing the good performance seen in the first nine months and reflected in the leading positions in net new business tables. Generally, the Group continues to benefit from consolidation trends in the industry, winning assignments from existing and new clients, including several very large industry-leading advertising, digital, media, pharmaceutical, eCommerce and shopper marketing assignments.
Reportable revenue was up 6.1% at £15.265 billion. Revenue on a constant currency basis was up 1.6% compared with last year, the difference to the reportable number reflecting the weakness of the pound sterling against most currencies, particularly in the first half of the year, with some strengthening in the second half. As a number of our competitors report in US dollars, euros and yen, appendices 2, 3 and 4 show WPP’s Preliminary results in reportable US dollars, euros and yen respectively. This shows that US dollar reportable revenue was up 1.7% to $19.703 billion and headline earnings before interest and taxes up 3.1% to $2.953 billion, which compares with the $15.274 billion and $2.177 billion respectively of the second largest11 direct (United States-based) competitor. Euro reportable revenue was down 0.6% to €17.427 billion and headline earnings before interest and taxes down 1.0% to €2.579 billion, which compares with €9.690 billion and €1.620 billion respectively of the third largest11 direct (European-based) competitor and yen reportable revenue was up 4.9% to ¥2.209 trillion and headline earnings before interest and taxes up 6.2% to ¥331 billion, which compares with ¥929 billion and ¥164 billion of our fourth largest11 direct (Japan-based) competitor.
On a like-for-like basis, which excludes the impact of currency and acquisitions, revenue was down 0.3%, with revenue less pass-through costs1 down 0.9%. In the fourth quarter, like-for-like revenue was up 1.2%, the strongest quarter of the year. North America and the United Kingdom performed well, both recording their strongest quarterly growth of the year, with Western Continental Europe and Latin America weaker. Asia Pacific improved over the first and third quarter, with Africa & the Middle East down similar to the first nine months. Like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs1 growth was weaker than revenue growth, down 1.3% in the fourth quarter, particularly in North America, with the United Kingdom stronger.
Headline EBITDA was up 4.7% to £2.534 billion, from £2.420 billion the previous year and up 1.2% in constant currency. Group revenue is more weighted to the second half of the year across all regions and sectors, and, particularly, in the faster growing markets of Asia Pacific and Latin America. As a result, the Group’s profitability and margin continue to be skewed to the second half of the year, with the Group earning approximately one-third of its profits in the first half and two-thirds in the second half. Headline operating profit for 2017 was up 4.9% to £2.267 billion, from £2.160 billion and up 1.5% in constant currencies.
Revenue less pass-through costs1 margin was down 0.1 margin points to 17.3%, flat in constant currency and like-for-like, in line with the Group’s full year revised margin target. The revenue less pass-through costs1 margin of 17.3% is after charging £40 million ($52 million) of severance costs, compared with £34 million ($49 million) in 2016 and £324 million ($418 million) of incentive payments, versus £367 million ($486 million) in 2016. Constant currency and like-for-like operating margins were flat with the prior year.
As outlined in previous Preliminary Announcements for the last few years, due to the increasing scale of digital media purchases within the Group’s media investment management businesses and of direct costs in data investment management, revenue less pass-through costs1 are, in our view, a helpful reflection of top line growth, although currently, only one of our competitors partially reports revenue less pass-through costs1. As a result of changes in reporting standards effective 1 January 2018, in relation to revenue recognition, standardised reporting of revenue less pass-through costs1 will probably become more common in our industry. The differences are shown below in a table that compares the Group’s like-for-like revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 against our direct competitors’ like-for-like revenue only performance over the last two years.
|Revenue (local ‘m)||£15,265||£13,140||$15,274||€9,690||$7,882||¥877,622||€2,259|
|Growth Rates (%)*||-0.3||-0.9||3.0||0.8||1.8||0.1||-0.8|
|Quarterly like-for-like growth%*|
|2 Years cumulative like-for-like growth %|
|* The above like-for-like/organic revenue figures are extracted from the published quarterly and full year trading statements issued by Omnicom Group (“OMC”), Publicis Groupe (“Pub”), Interpublic Group (“IPG”), Dentsu and Havas (included in Vivendi results)|
On a reported basis, operating margins, before all incentives12 and income from associates, were 18.9%, down 1.0 margin point, compared with 19.9% last year. The Group’s staff costs to revenue less pass-through costs1 ratio, including severance and incentives, increased by 0.5 margin points to 63.3% compared to 62.8% in 2016, as staff costs were not reduced in line with the fall in revenue less pass-through costs1. However, the Group was able to manage its general and administrative costs, including property, relatively effectively, with improvements across most categories.
Headline operating costs13 rose by 6.6%, rose by 1.8% in constant currency, but down 0.6% like-for-like. Reported staff costs, excluding incentives, increased by 7.8%, up 2.8% in constant currency. Incentive payments amounted to £324 million ($421 million), which were 13.1% of headline operating profit before incentives and income from associates, compared with £367 million ($486 million) or 14.9% in 2016. Achievement of target, at an individual Company level, generally generates 15% of operating profit before bonus as an incentive pool, 20% at maximum and 25% at super maximum.
On a like-for-like basis, the average number of people in the Group, excluding associates, in 2017 was 134,428 compared to 136,409 in 2016, a decrease of 1.5%. On the same basis, the total number of people in the Group, excluding associates, at 31 December 2017 was 134,413 compared to 136,775 at 31 December 2016, a decrease of 2,362 or 1.7%.
Exceptional gains and restructuring costs
In 2017 the Group generated exceptional gains of £129 million, largely representing the gain on the sale of the Group’s minority interests in Asatsu-DK to Bain Capital and Infoscout to Vista Equity Partners. A 25% equity interest in Asatsu-DK may be purchased shortly at a cost of approximately $60 million. These were partly offset by investment write-downs of £96 million, principally in relation to comScore Inc., resulting in a net gain of £33 million, which in accordance with prior practice, has been excluded from headline profit. The Group took a £57 million restructuring provision, primarily against severance provisions in mature markets and the Group’s IT transformation costs.
Interest and taxes
Net finance costs (excluding the revaluation of financial instruments) were up marginally at £174.6 million, compared with £174.1 million in 2016, an increase of £0.5 million. This is due to the weakness in sterling resulting in higher translation costs on non-sterling debt and the cost of higher average net debt being offset by the beneficial impact of lower bond coupon costs resulting from refinancing maturing debt at cheaper rates and higher investment income.
The headline tax rate was 22.0% (2016 21.0%) and on reported profit before tax was 9.3% (2016 20.6%), principally due to the exceptional tax credit, primarily relating to the re-measurement of deferred tax liabilities. The headline tax rate for 2018 is expected to be up to 1% higher than 2017. Given the Group’s geographic mix of profits and the changing international tax environment, the tax rate is expected to increase slightly over the next few years. The recent tax changes outlined in the United States Tax Cuts and Jobs Act do not impact the Group’s tax rate significantly, up or down, except for the tax credit mentioned above.
Earnings and dividend
Headline profit before tax was up 5.4% to £2.093 billion from £1.986 billion, or up 1.9% in constant currencies.
Reported profit before tax rose by 11.6% to £2.109 billion from £1.891 billion. In constant currencies, reported profit before tax rose by 7.7%.
Reported profit after tax rose by 27.4% to £1.912 billion from £1.502 billion. In constant currencies, profits after tax rose 22.6%.
Profits attributable to share owners rose by 29.7% to £1.817 billion from £1.400 billion. In constant currencies, profits attributable to share owners rose by 24.9%.
Headline diluted earnings per share rose by 6.4% to 120.4p from 113.2p. In constant currencies, earnings per share on the same basis rose by 2.7%. Reported diluted earnings per share rose by 31.9% to 142.4p from 108.0p and increased 26.9% in constant currencies.
As outlined in the June 2015 Preliminary Announcement, the achievement of the previously targeted pay-out ratio of 45% one year ahead of schedule, raised the question of whether the pay-out ratio target should be increased further. Following that review, your Board decided to increase the dividend pay-out ratio to a target of 50%, to be achieved by 2017, and, as a result, declared an increase of almost 23% in the 2016 interim dividend to 19.55p per share, representing a pay-out ratio of 50% for the first half. This had the effect of evening out the pay-out ratio between the two half-year periods and consequently balancing out the dividend payments themselves, although the pattern of profitability and hence dividend payments seems likely to remain one-third in the first half and two-thirds in the second half.
Given your Company’s performance in 2017, your Board proposes a marginal increase in the final dividend to 37.3p per share, which, together with the interim dividend of 22.7p per share, makes a total of 60.0p per share for 2017, an overall increase of 6.0%. This represents a dividend pay-out ratio of 50%, the same as last year. The record date for the final dividend is 15 June 2018, payable on 9 July 2018.
Further details of WPP’s financial performance are provided in Appendices 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The pattern of revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth differed regionally. The tables below give details of revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1, revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth by region for 2017, as well as the proportion of Group revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 and operating profit and operating margin by region;
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||
|% group||2016||% group|
|W Cont. Europe||3,160||7.4%||1.6%||-0.3%||20.7%||2,943||20.4%|
AP, LA, AME, CEE16
Revenue less pass-through costs1 analysis
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||∆ constant||∆ LFL||% group||2016||% group|
|W Cont. Europe||2,616||7.9%||1.9%||0.0%||19.9%||2,425||19.6%|
|AP, LA, AME, CEE||4,041||6.9%||1.6%||-0.8%||30.8%||3,781||30.5%|
Operating profit analysis (Headline PBIT)
|£ million||2017||% margin*||2016||% margin*|
|W Cont. Europe||376||14.4%||352||14.5%|
|AP, LA, AME, CEE||674||16.7%||652||17.2%|
|* Headline PBIT as a percentage of revenue less pass-through costs1|
North America constant currency revenue was up 4.2% in the final quarter and like-for-like up 1.6%, the strongest quarter of the year, reflecting strong growth in media investment management, brand consulting and parts of the Group’s direct, digital and interactive operations, including eCommerce and shopper marketing. On a full year basis, constant currency revenue was up 0.3%, with like-for-like down 2.3%. Constant currency revenue less pass-through costs1 showed a similar pattern.
United Kingdom constant currency revenue was up 11.2% in the final quarter and like-for-like up 8.4%, the strongest quarter of the year. Media investment management, direct, digital & interactive and public relations and public affairs were particularly strong with data investment management, health & wellness and the Group’s specialist communications businesses also up. On a full year basis, constant currency revenue was up strongly at 6.4%, with like-for-like up 4.9%, with the second half significantly stronger than the first half, driven by new business wins in the Group’s direct, digital & interactive businesses. Full year revenue less pass-through costs1 were up 6.0% in constant currency, with like-for-like up 4.8%.
Western Continental Europe constant currency revenue was up 1.6% in the final quarter, partly the result of acquisitions, with like-for-like revenue down 1.4%, reflecting volatility in political and macro-economic conditions. Revenue less pass-through costs1 followed a similar pattern, up 1.8% in constant currency, but down 0.8% like-for-like. For the year, Western Continental Europe constant currency revenue grew 1.6% with like-for-like down 0.3%. Revenue less pass-through costs1 growth was slightly stronger, up 1.9% in constant currency and flat like-for-like. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands and Turkey showed growth in the final quarter, but Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Switzerland were tougher.
In Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & the Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe, on a constant currency basis, revenue was down 1.0% in the fourth quarter and down 0.1% like-for-like, largely as a result of stronger comparatives in the fourth quarter of 2016, when constant currency revenue was up 11.9% and like-for-like revenue up 3.9%, the strongest quarter of the year. In the fourth quarter, Latin America, despite almost 4% growth, was weaker than the first nine months with Central & Eastern Europe also tougher. The Next 1117 and CIVETS18 grew in the fourth quarter, with the MIST19 more difficult. Constant currency revenue less pass-through costs1 growth in the region was similar to revenue growth, with like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs1 growth for the region as a whole down 0.8%.
In 2017, 30.0% of the Group’s revenue came from Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & the Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe, up marginally from 29.9% in 2016. With revenue less pass-through costs1, the increase was slightly more, up to 30.8% from 30.5% in 2016.
Business sector review
The pattern of revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth also varied by communications services sector and operating brand. The tables below give details of revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1, revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth by communications services sector, as well as the proportion of Group revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 for 2017 and operating profit and operating margin by communications services sector;
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||
|% group||2016||% group|
|Data Inv. Mgt.||2,691||1.1%||-3.6%||-2.9%||17.6%||2,661||18.5%|
PR & PA23
BC, HW & SC24
Revenue less pass-through costs1 analysis
|£ million||2017||∆ reported||∆ constant||∆ LFL||% group||2016||% group|
|Data Inv. Mgt.||2,052||2.9%||-1.9%||-1.3%||15.6%||1,994||16.1%|
|PR & PA||1,141||5.8%||1.0%||0.2%||8.7%||1,079||8.7%|
|BC, HW & SC||4,095||4.7%||0.3%||1.0%||31.2%||3,912||31.6%|
Operating profit analysis (Headline PBIT)
|£ million||2017||% margin*||2016||% margin*|
|Data Inv. Mgt.||350||17.1%||351||17.6%|
|PR & PA||183||16.1%||180||16.7%|
|BC, HW & SC||625||15.3%||602||15.4%|
|* Headline PBIT as a percentage of revenue less pass-through costs1|
In 2017, 41.7% of the Group’s revenue came from direct, digital and interactive, up 2.8 percentage points from the previous year, with like-for-like revenue growth of 2.5% in 2017.
Advertising and Media Investment Management
In constant currencies, advertising and media investment management was the strongest performing sector overall, with constant currency revenue up 5.1% in 2017, up 5.6% in quarter four. On a like-for-like basis, revenue was up 1.8% in quarter four but down 0.1% for the year. Media investment management showed strong like-for-like revenue growth in all regions except Western Continental Europe and the Middle East in quarter four, with particularly strong growth in North America, the United Kingdom, Asia Pacific and Latin America. The Group’s advertising businesses remained difficult, particularly in North America.
The strong revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth across most of the Group’s media investment management businesses, offset by slower growth in the Group’s advertising businesses in most regions, resulted in the combined reported operating margin of this sector flat with last year at 19.0%, up 0.2 margin points in constant currency.
In 2017, J. Walter Thompson Company, Ogilvy & Mather, Y&R and Grey generated net new business billings of $1.364 billion. In the same year, GroupM, the Group’s media investment management company, which includes Mindshare, Wavemaker (the new agency formed by the merger of MEC and Maxus), MediaCom, Essence, Xaxis and [m]PLATFORM, together with tenthavenue, generated net new business billings of $3.444 billion. The Group totalled $6.330 billion, compared with $6.757 billion in 2016.
Data Investment Management
On a like-for-like basis, data investment management revenue was down 0.8% in the fourth quarter, a significant improvement over the first nine months, with growth in the United Kingdom, Latin America and Africa. On a full year basis, constant currency revenue was down 3.6%, down 2.9% like-for-like, with revenue less pass-through costs1, down 1.9% in constant currency and down 1.3% like-for-like. Geographically, revenue less pass-through costs1 were up strongly in the United Kingdom and Latin America, with North America and Asia Pacific particularly difficult. Kantar Worldpanel and Lightspeed showed strong like-for-like revenue less pass-through costs1 growth, with Kantar Insights, Kantar Health and Kantar Public less robust. Reported operating margins were down 0.5 margin points (the same as the first half) to 17.1% and down 0.4 margin points in constant currency.
Public Relations and Public Affairs
In constant currencies, the Group’s public relations and public affairs businesses were weaker in the second half of the year with constant currency revenue down 0.9% in the third quarter and down 0.8% in the fourth quarter. The United Kingdom and the Middle East grew strongly in the fourth quarter offset by weaker conditions in North America and Continental Europe. Full year revenue grew 1.7% in constant currency and 0.7% like-for-like. Cohn & Wolfe, the Group’s specialist public relations and public affairs businesses Glover Park, Ogilvy Government Relations and Buchanan, performed particularly well. Overall operating margins fell 0.6 margin points to 16.1% and by 0.4 margin points in constant currency, as parts of the Group’s North American businesses slowed in the second half.
Brand Consulting, Health & Wellness and Specialist Communications
The Group’s brand consulting, health & wellness and specialist communications businesses (including direct, digital & interactive), was the strongest performing sector in the fourth quarter on a like-for-like basis, up 2.0%, driven by solid growth in brand consulting and specialist communications. The Group’s direct, digital and interactive businesses, especially VML, Wunderman and Hogarth performed well. Operating margins, for the sector as a whole, were down slightly by 0.1 margin points to 15.3% and flat in constant currency, with operating margins negatively affected as parts of the Group’s direct, digital and interactive, brand consulting and health & wellness businesses in North America slowed.
Excluding associates, the Group currently employs over 130,000 full-time people covering 112 countries, excluding Cuba and Iran (through an affiliation agreement). It services 369 of the Fortune Global 500 companies, all 30 of the Dow Jones 30, 71 of the NASDAQ 100 and 913 national or multi-national clients in three or more disciplines. 629 clients are served in four disciplines and these clients account for over 53% of Group revenue. This reflects the increasing opportunities for co-ordination and co-operation or horizontality between activities, both nationally and internationally, and at a client and country level. The Group also works with 477 clients in 6 or more countries. The Group estimates that well over a third of new assignments in the year were generated through the joint development of opportunities by two or more Group companies. Horizontality across clients, countries and regions and on which the Group has been working for many years, is clearly becoming an increasingly important part of our client strategies, particularly as clients continue to invest in brand in slower-growth markets and both capacity and brand in faster-growth markets.
Cash flow highlights
In 2017, operating profit was £1.908 billion, depreciation, amortisation and goodwill impairment £489 million, non-cash share-based incentive charges £105 million, net interest paid £170 million, tax paid £425 million, capital expenditure £326 million and other net cash outflows £41 million. Free cash flow available for working capital requirements, debt repayment, acquisitions, share buy-backs and dividends was, therefore, £1.540 billion.
This free cash flow was absorbed by £229 million in net cash acquisition payments and investments (of which £199 million was for earnout payments, with the balance of £30 million for investments and new acquisition payments net of disposal proceeds), £504 million in share buy-backs and £752 million in dividends, a total outflow of £1.485 billion. This resulted in a net cash inflow of £55 million, before any changes in working capital.
A summary of the Group’s unaudited cash flow statement and notes as at 31 December 2017 is provided in Appendix 1.
In line with the Group’s strategic focus on new markets, new media and data investment management, the Group completed 43 transactions in the year; 15 acquisitions and investments were in new markets, 32 in quantitative and digital and 5 were driven by individual client or agency needs. Out of all these transactions, 9 were in both new markets and quantitative and digital.
Specifically, in 2017, acquisitions and increased equity stakes have been completed in advertising and media investment management in the United States, Germany, the Middle East and North Africa, Croatia, Russia, China and India; data investment management in the United Kingdom and Ireland; brand consulting in the United Kingdom and Italy; direct, digital and interactive in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, China and Brazil.
A further 3 acquisitions and investments were made in the first two months of 2018, with 1 in advertising and media investment management; and 2 in direct, digital and interactive.
Balance sheet highlights
Average net debt in 2017 was £5.143 billion, compared to £4.559 billion in 2016, at 2017 exchange rates. On 31 December 2017 net debt was £4.483 billion, against £4.131 billion on 31 December 2016, an increase of £352 million (an increase of £478 million at 2017 exchange rates). The increased period end debt figure reflects the movement in working capital and provisions of £532 million. This trend has continued in the first seven weeks of 2018, with average net debt of £4.521 billion, compared with £4.213 billion in the same period in 2017, an increase of £308 million (an increase of £409 million at 2018 exchange rates). The net debt figure of £4.483 billion at 31 December, compares with a current market capitalisation of approximately £17.703 billion ($24.395 billion), giving an enterprise value of £22.186 billion ($30.572 billion). The average net debt to EBITDA ratio at 2.0x, is at the top-end of the Group’s target range of 1.5-2.0x.
Your Board continues to examine ways of deploying its EBITDA of over £2.5 billion (over $3.3 billion) and substantial free cash flow of over £1.5 billion (over $1.9 billion) per annum, to enhance share owner value balancing capital expenditure, acquisitions, share buy-backs and dividends. The Group’s current market value of £17.7 billion implies an EBITDA multiple of 7.0 times, on the basis of the full year 2017 results. Including year-end net debt of £4.483 billion, the Group’s enterprise value to EBITDA multiple is 8.8 times.
A summary of the Group’s unaudited balance sheet and notes as at 31 December 2017 is provided in Appendix 1.
Return of funds to share owners
Dividends paid in respect of 2017 will total approximately £758 million for the year. Funds returned to share owners in 2017 totalled £1.256 billion, including share buy-backs, an increase of 20% over 2016. In 2016 funds returned to share owners were £1.044 billion. In the last five years, £5.0 billion has been returned to share owners and over the last ten years £6.6 billion.
In 2017, 32.4 million shares, or 2.5% of the issued share capital, were purchased at a cost of £504 million and an average price of £15.56.
January 2018 like-for-like revenue was flat, ahead of budget, with revenue less pass-through costs1 down 1.2%, also ahead of budget and against more difficult comparatives in the first quarter of last year.
Macroeconomic and industry context
Global GDP growth may still have been generally sub-trend (pre-Lehman) in 2017, in the low nominal 3% range, but forecasts for 2018 have generally improved moving up in the 3-4% range. The Davos consensus a month or so ago was almost universally bullish, although that seemed to trigger a “Davos put” for markets, at least temporarily. In any event, the United States economy is strengthening driven by the three-pronged Trump policies of tax and regulation reduction and infrastructure investment, with business confidence at much higher levels than under previous administrations. Prospects for Europe too are better with the big four Continental European economies in generally better shape, although the positive of a charismatic Macron-led France may be outweighed by political uncertainties in Germany, Italy and Spain and the UK economy seems to be increasingly challenged by Brexit. All of which we will know more about very soon. Asia Pacific is generally improving too with China, India and Japan in better shape following economic and political reforms, buttressed by economies like Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Even the political prospects for the Korean Peninsula may have improved. Latin American economies are also improving in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru especially, although the Mexico election may ruffle progress. Political changes also bode well for Africa and the Middle East, although the latter, in particular, remains volatile. Russia continues to progress, despite Western sanctions and Central and Eastern Europe countries like Poland are responding generally well to an improving Western Europe. The canary in the coal mine seems to be inflation and its potential to trigger larger and earlier than anticipated increases in interest rates and consequent impact on stock and real markets. It clearly will happen some time, the question being when.
From our point of view 2018 should in theory be a better year. The sportingly and politically successful Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the Russian World Cup and the US Congressional mid-term elections should all trigger more marketing investment, reflecting a mini-quadrennial year. However, growth in marketing spend seems to have decoupled somewhat from GDP growth in the mature markets in the last year, perhaps temporarily. When top line growth is examined carefully, for example for the S&P 500, it seems to be concentrated in the technology and healthcare sectors. As a result, in a low inflation and consequently low pricing power environment, there is an understandable focus on cost. In turn, more long-term technological disruption and the short-term focus of ZBB driven companies, activist investors and private equity along with relatively short-term executive tenures all result in increasing the short-term cost focus. We do not believe that this approach is tenable in the longer-term. Sales volume growth is critical, particularly for fast moving consumer goods. We know that those companies that invest in innovation and brand win. Our own brand valuation survey, BrandZ, clearly shows companies that do so, significantly outperform market indices. The emphasis has to shift from cost to growth, for example, in terms of where the next billion consumers will come from - certainly not the United States or Western Europe, but most likely Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & the Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe.
2017 for us was not a pretty year. Basically, like-for-like top line growth was flat against original expectations of 2% growth and operating margins and operating profits were flat or up marginally.
Whether this was due to Google and Facebook disintermediating agencies (our view not so), or consultants eating our digital lunch (our view also not so, except in the more general area of helping cut costs) or the low cost of money driving ZBB, activist and private equity activity (our view the major contributor), it is clear that we have to accelerate implementation of our strategy to deal both with technological disruption and this short-term focus.
An increasingly digital world impacts manufacturing through, for example, 3D printing or robotics, media, for example, through Google and Facebook and disruption through, for example, Amazon and Alibaba. With limited GDP growth, low inflation, limited pricing power and a consequent focus on cost, simplicity, agility and flexibility of structure is a pre-requisite. To achieve this, we are increasingly focused on accelerating the implementation of the following:
- firstly, simplifying our verticals - in advertising, for example, Ogilvy with John Seifert’s Next Chapter; in media investment management, for example, GroupM with Kelly Clark’s and Tim Castree’s Wavemaker; in data investment management, for example, Kantar with Eric Salama’s Kantar First and Kantar Consulting; in public relations and public affairs, for example, Donna Imperato’s leadership of Burson Cohn & Wolfe and Finsbury’s strategic partnership with Hering Schuppener and Glover Park Group; in brand consulting, WPP Brand Consulting and consolidation at Superunion; in health & wellness, with Mike Hudnall’s WPP Health & Wellness and finally, in digital, for example, Mark Read’s Wunderman with POSSIBLE, Salmon, Cognifide and Acceleration and Jon Cook’s VML with Rockfish. These are all examples of simplifying our offer more effectively. This escalation will continue as we continue to work with clients on developing the “agency of the future” and who, at the same time, demand faster, better, cheaper.
- second, focusing on stronger client co-ordination across the whole of WPP, with 51 client leaders covering one-third of our revenues and overseeing our client relationships on an integrated firm-wide basis, not solely on a vertical by vertical or country by country basis.
- third, appointing country and sub-regional leaders to ensure integration of our offers at a country level, particularly with the growth of “piranha” or “gladiator” brands at a local or regional level and to concentrate on making sure we have not only the best local clients, but the best people and acquisitions on a market by market basis.
- finally, at the same time, “horizontalizing” certain capabilities or platforms that can clearly provide client-differentiating services for both our integrated offer and our brands. We have already started to build these in the areas of finance, talent, information technology, property and practices such as retail, brand valuation and government. In addition, today, we are announcing and ensuring that our global production management platform, Hogarth, is harnessed across the whole of the Group. We are also examining how our digital, eCommerce and shopper platforms and capabilities can be most seamlessly connected. We are already involved in a fundamental way with digital strategy, transformation with the majority of our clients and we will be ensuring that these capabilities are even more easily accessible and can be combined more effectively with our vertical agencies.
The budgets for 2018 have been prepared on the usual bottom-up basis, but continue to reflect a faster growing United Kingdom and the faster geographical markets of Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & the Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe and faster growing functional sectors and sub-sectors of media, public relations & public affairs and direct, digital and interactive, with a stronger second half of the year, reflecting the 2017 comparative. Given what proved to be top-line optimism in our budgets last year, we have encouraged our operating companies to budget extremely conservative revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1. Consequently, our 2018 budgets show the following;
- Flat like-for-like revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1
- Flat operating margin to revenue less pass-through costs1 on a constant currency basis
In 2018, our prime focus will remain on growing revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 faster than the industry average, driven by our leading position in horizontality, faster growing geographic markets and digital, premier parent company creative and effectiveness position, new business and strategically targeted acquisitions. 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. Flexible staff costs (including incentives, freelance and consultants) remain close to historical highs of above 8% of revenue less pass-through costs1 and continue to position the Group extremely well should current market conditions change.
The Group continues to improve co-operation and co-ordination among its operating companies in order to add value to our clients’ businesses and our people’s careers, an objective which has been specifically built into short-term incentive plans. We have decided that up to half of operating company incentive pools are funded and allocated on the basis of Group-wide performance and incentive allocation criteria include specific Group-wide revenue less pass-through costs1 objectives. Horizontality has been accelerated through the appointment of 51 global client leaders for our major clients, accounting for over one third of total revenue of almost $20 billion and 20 regional and country managers in a growing number of test markets and sub-regions, covering about half of the 112 countries in which we operate.
Emphasis has been laid on the areas of media investment management, health & wellness, sustainability, government, new technologies, new markets, retailing, shopper marketing, internal communications, financial services and media and entertainment. The Group continues to lead the industry, in co-ordinating communications services geographically and functionally through parent company initiatives and winning Group pitches. Whilst talent and creativity (in the broadest sense) remain key potential differentiators between us and our competitors, increasingly differentiation can also be achieved in three additional ways – through application of technology, for example, Xaxis, AppNexus and Triad; through integration of data investment management, for example, Kantar; and through investment in content, for example, Imagine, Imagina, Vice, Media Rights Capital, Fullscreen, Indigenous Media, China Media Capital, Bruin and Refinery29.
In addition, strong and considered points of view on the adequacy of online and, indeed, offline measurement, on viewability, on internet fraud and transparency, on online media placement and brand safety and, finally, on fake news are all examples where further differentiation is important and can be secured through considered initiatives. With its leadership position, as the world's largest media investment management operation, GroupM has developed a strong united point of view with its leading clients and associates, like AppNexus, in all these areas and has aligned with Kantar's data investment management resources, to provide better capabilities. These philosophical differences and operational capabilities are extremely effective in responding to the trade association and regulatory issues that have been raised recently.
Our business remains geographically and functionally well positioned to compete successfully and to deliver on our long-term targets:
- Revenue and revenue less pass-through costs1 growth greater than the industry average
- Improvement in revenue less pass-through costs1 margin of between zero and 0.3 margin points or more, excluding the impact of currency, depending on revenue less pass-through costs1 growth, and staff costs to revenue less pass-through costs1 ratio improvement of between zero and 0.2 margin points or more
- Annual headline diluted EPS growth of 5% to 10% p.a. delivered through revenue growth, margin expansion, acquisitions and share buy-backs
Uses of funds
As capital expenditure remains relatively stable, our focus is on the alternative uses of funds between acquisitions, share buy-backs and dividends. We have increasingly come to the view, that currently, the markets favour consistent increases in dividends and higher sustainable pay-out ratios, along with anti-dilutive progressive buy-backs and, of course, sensibly-priced, small- to medium-sized strategic acquisitions.
Share buy-backs will continue to be targeted to absorb any share dilution from issues of options or restricted stock in the range of 2-3% of the issued share capital. In addition, the Company does also have considerable free cash flow to take advantage of any anomalies in market values.
There is still a very significant pipeline of reasonably priced small- and medium-sized potential acquisitions, with the exception perhaps of digital in the United States, where prices seem to have got ahead of themselves because of pressure on competitors to catch up. This is clearly reflected in some of the operational issues that are starting to surface elsewhere in the industry, particularly in fast growing markets like China, Brazil and India. Transactions will continue to be focused on our strategy of new markets, new media and data investment management, including the application of new technology, big data and content. Net acquisition spend is currently targeted at around £300 to £400 million per annum. We will continue to seize opportunities in line with our strategy to increase the Group’s exposure to:
- Faster growing geographic markets and sectors
- New media and data investment management, including the application of technology and big data
Last but not least………
A powerhouse of talent
No company in the world has a greater or more varied repertory of talent than WPP. And never has the availability of that talent been more necessary.
In their continued search for profitable growth, marketing companies around the world, as always, have two basic routes to follow: to contain cost; and to add value. These are not alternatives: the best companies master both.
To cut cost requires discipline and constant attention to detail. The undoubted benefits it can deliver are finite: there must always be a limit beyond which a business will suffer. To add value requires a different set of skills; it demands a conscious application of the human imagination; and its potential benefits are limitless.
As marketing companies exhaust their restricted opportunities to become more efficient - to prune costs, to buy more shrewdly - so their need to add value to their offering becomes ever more critical.
The powerhouse of talent that WPP represents exists precisely to meet that need.
First, we recruit, train, reward and incentivise that talent. And then we apply that talent, across all relevant skills, according to the individual needs of each individual client.
To do this successfully, to be able to harness shared enthusiasm across traditional disciplines, means breaking down some traditional silos; which is why we call our method horizontality. To the client, our service, however many distinct skills it may comprise, must seem to be seamless.
In the immediate future, as demand for fully integrated marketing services continues to increase, and as their benign effect on client company results becomes ever more evident, WPP will be simplifying its corporate structure; making access to that powerhouse of talent even easier.
To access WPP's 2017 preliminary results financial tables, please visit www.wpp.com/investor
This announcement has been filed at the Company Announcements Office of the London Stock Exchange and is being distributed to all owners of Ordinary shares and American Depository Receipts. Copies are available to the public at the Company’s registered office.
The following cautionary statement is included for safe harbour purposes in connection with the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 introduced in the United States of America. This announcement may contain forward-looking statements within the meaning of the US federal securities laws. These statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially including adjustments arising from the annual audit by management and the Company’s independent auditors. For further information on factors which could impact the Company and the statements contained herein, please refer to public filings by the Company with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The statements in this announcement should be considered in light of these risks and uncertainties.
|1 The Group has changed the description of ‘net sales’ to ‘revenue less pass-through costs’ based on the upcoming adoption of new accounting standards and recently issued regulatory guidance and observations. There has been no change in the way that this measure is calculated|
|2 Percentage change in reported sterling|
|3 Percentage change at constant currency exchange rates|
|4 Headline earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation|
|5 Headline profit before interest and tax|
|6 Diluted earnings per share based on headline earnings|
|7 Diluted earnings per share based on reported earnings|
|8 Return on equity is headline diluted EPS divided by equity share owners funds per share|
|9 Percentage change at constant currency exchange rates|
|10 Like-for-like growth at constant currency exchange rates and excluding the effects of acquisitions and disposals|
|11 Ranked by market capitalisation as at 1 March 2018|
|12 Short and long-term incentives and the cost of share-based incentives|
|13 Costs of services and general and administrative costs, excluding pass-through costs, goodwill impairment, amortisation of acquired intangibles, investment gains and write-downs (in 2017 exceptional gains were £129 million, investment write-downs of £96 million, restructuring charges and costs in relation to the IT transformation project were £57 million)|
|14 Percentage change at constant currency exchange rates|
|15 Like-for-like growth at constant currency exchange rates and excluding the effects of acquisitions and disposals|
|16 Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa & Middle East and Central & Eastern Europe|
|17 Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam and Turkey - the Group has no operations in Iran (accounting for over $975 million revenue, including associates)|
|18 Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa (accounting for over $895 million revenue, including associates)|
|19 Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey (accounting for over $695 million revenue, including associates)|
|20 Percentage change at constant currency exchange rates|
|21 Like-for-like growth at constant currency exchange rates and excluding the effects of acquisitions and disposals|
|22 Advertising, Media Investment Management|
|23 Public Relations & Public Affairs|
|24 Brand Consulting, Health & Wellness and Specialist Communications (including direct, digital and interactive)|