CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/STOCK OPTIONS - Is WPP being too cautious by altering its accounting procedure?

In the wake of recent financial scandals, the accounting practices of advertising holding companies are under greater scrutiny than ever before. This may explain WPP's decision to alter its accounting procedures and become the first UK company to record share options as expenses. In any other climate, the move might be considered unnecessarily conservative.

Had WPP adopted this policy a year ago it would now have 2.8 per cent (£14.2 million) less profit to show for itself. Had the policy been in effect in the first half of 2002, WPP's operating profit would have been cut by only 0.6 per cent (£1.3 million).

Compared with WPP's operating profits for 2002 of £507.2 million, these figures may seem inconsequential, but in today's uncertain economic climate, few could blame any holding company for being reluctant to voluntarily deepen its recorded losses. However, it would seem that honesty and transparency are as important as profit when it comes to safeguarding shareholder value.

Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis, agrees. He says: "At the moment, the US is driving a move toward tighter accounting standards and people are beginning to look at share options, seeing that they're being used as a form of remuneration and demanding that this is accounted for. If you work in an industry where the key assets, people, are intangible then things like share options are important."

In recent months, the merest mention of financial irregularity in the press has been enough to send holding companies' share prices tumbling.

While many consider the US press treatment of Omnicom to be unjust, the fact remains that the advertising industry is a very acquisitive one and is eyed with suspicion by those who feel that it relies too heavily on acquisitions to improve its balance sheets.

So should adland's other big two follow WPP's lead? The Interpublic Group of Companies admits it is considering the option.

In some ways, the US holding companies are under greater pressure to treat stock options as an expense. At present, the UK market is unregulated on this score. In the US, however, a system of accounting was introduced in 1995 called the Black Scholes or "Fair Value method. This extremely prudent method ensures stock options are identified as performance related and therefore must be categorised as an expense. The Black Scholes method is currently optional in the US and, with the exception of a handful of operations such as Coca-Cola and General Electric, has been largely overlooked.

All of which makes WPP's acceptance of it more remarkable. But the world's largest communications company is beginning to develop a reputation for openness, partly fuelled by Sir Martin Sorrell's increasingly blunt assessments of his company's prospects.

It can be argued that WPP's latest gambit is an unnecessary yield to the hysteria generated by the Enron and WorldCom scandals and an increasingly unforgiving business press. But until that hysteria eases, any move that casts the advertising holding companies in a positive and open light can only be a good thing.

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus