Close-Up: Live issue - How will recession threat hit industry?

What kind of impact is the economic downturn likely to have on marcoms groups, John Tylee asks.

What troubles most marcoms company chiefs about the white-knuckle ride their share prices are currently taking is their powerlessness to influence the course of it.

Tightening their safety harnesses by keeping costs under control is all very well - indeed, it's essential. However, there are lots of other potential problems they can only hope will resolve themselves.

Will the US Federal Reserve's dramatic interest-rate cut stop the world's largest and most influential economy from imploding?

Can flaky fund managers be persuaded not to switch their investments out of marketing services companies and into what they deem to be less risky businesses? Will expansion plans be shelved as the value of company paper drops? And can clients be coaxed into holding their nerve amid all the voices warning of an imminent collapse in consumer confidence? So many questions, so few answers, lots of apprehension.

"What's happening is bound to limit what we do in terms of expansion," David Kershaw, the M&C Saatchi chief executive, admits. "But it's also true that clients are absorbing media which is telling them the world is closing in on them. That's the real worry."

These concerns were already evident before the markets went haywire. The M&C share price, along with that of other groups such as Cello, Chime Communications and Creston, has been falling since the latter part of 2007. Since November, it has dropped from 150p per share to less than 110p per share.

So what is to be done? Tim Bell, Chime's chairman, claims there's nothing to be gained by marketing services groups railing against the injustice of it all. "There's no point in complaining that it isn't fair," he says. "Our share price is ridiculously low, but it is what it is, and we have to react to it."

Don Elgie, the chief executive of Creston, whose stable includes Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners and Tullo Marshall Warren, adds: "If there's one thing I've learned from each economic downturn I've experienced, it's that you can't buck the market."

Both Bell and Elgie agree that creating the kind of structure that will keep costs under control is essential. "The companies with the most experienced managements will be best equipped to deal with this," Bell says.

How much any downturn will affect acquisition activity is an open question. Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, says: "Deals will be difficult because buyers won't be able to find the funds and sellers won't be keen to be paid partly in cash and partly in shares."

However, Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman, isn't so sure. "I think there will be people who will see the state of the stock markets as an opportunity," he says.

Whether or not such opportunities will occur soon is hard to say. At WPP, whose share price has been yo-yoing of late, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive, claims this year will be good for advertising. It's 2009 that gives cause for concern.

For the time being, the marketing services groups can only hold their breath. "Everything depends on whether this financial crisis is allowed to become an economic crisis in which banks no longer lend to sensible businesses," Lorna Tilbian, the Numis Corporation's media analyst, explains. "If that happens, the high street will be hit - and so will the marcoms groups."

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ANALYST - Bob Willott, editor, Marketing Services Financial Intelligence

"It's going to be a case of the survival of the fittest. The biggest problems are being faced by the smaller capitalised companies. Big groups such as WPP are suffering because of the general state of the market. But smaller AIM-listed operations aren't being perceived as sufficiently robust by investment managers who are switching to businesses they regard as less risky. They see marketing services as a people business with no solid assets.

"Not only will low share prices make it difficult for groups to expand through acquisition, but there's also a real threat of adspends falling as consumer confidence collapses."

NETWORK CHIEF - Maurice Levy, chairman, Publicis Groupe

"We're in a situation where psychology and confidence play a large part. There's a lot of panic and a lot of people are being infected with it.

"The heart of the problem lies in the US. Lots of Americans have invested their savings in stock. It's much more common than in any European country. So when the market goes down, it's very serious because so many people are affected. And it has serious repercussions for our clients.

"They are looking at what their stocks are doing, and they're going to be very cautious in order to keep their businesses stable. However, I've no worries about a big drop in adspend. For the time being, the situation seems under control."

NETWORK CHIEF - Don Elgie, chief executive, Creston

"This will be my fourth downturn, and what I've learned from having been there before is that you can't buck the market.

"I don't think there will be a recession, but you have to plan as if there is one and make sure you're properly structured in terms of overheads. We're fortunate in having quality businesses and clients, and we estimate that 90 per cent of our revenue would be resistant to a recession. The vast majority of our work is fee-based and we don't buy media.

"However, we're taking a very cautious view of mergers and acquisitions because the value of our paper isn't what it was. There will be no corporately funded deals - and no fancy multiples."

CHAIRMAN - Tim Bell, chairman, Chime Communications

"I haven't the faintest idea how deep and extensive any recession is likely to be. What I do know is the importance of remembering that while you can't control revenue, you can control costs. It's likely that companies with the most experienced managers are best-equipped to deal with this.

"So far, we've had no pressure on fees. Nor have we been asked to repitch by a client whose clear intention is to cut costs. At least, not yet.

"With acquisition activity being abandoned because the risks are too high and share prices too low, we'll be looking to expand our operations in the Middle East and South-East Asia, which aren't so badly affected."