EDITORIAL: A billings blackout does no-one good

Post-Enron paranoia has gripped the world's leading communications groups, which have imposed a ban on their operating companies issuing unaudited income and billings figures to the media. Their decision reveals much about the siege mentality prevailing in US boardrooms after a succession of corporate scandals. But it says even more about a sinister trend within the global ad industry to suppress bad news about itself.

To cling to the US Government's newly introduced Sarbanes-Oxley Act as an excuse to clam up is bound to be seen as a crude attempt to subvert the intention of legislation that was meant to introduce more transparency into corporate behaviour, not less. Onlookers will also rightly wonder if the supergroups would be so keen to hide behind the skirts of Sarbanes-Oxley if the world economy was thriving and business booming.

At the very least, there's strong reason to believe the holding companies are over-reacting. Legal opinion in the US is split, with some experts arguing the dissemination of accurate information to industry publications would not be in contravention of the act. By pulling their wagons into a circle, the groups succeed only in stoking suspicions that figures released by their networks under the new rules would call into question some of the data they released in the past. A senior manager at a network owned by one of the largest holding companies has told Campaign of his battles to rein in country managers wanting to inflate figures for fear of being outgunned by rivals. He's almost certainly not alone.

Yet, despite their imperfections as a true measure of an agency's success, billings help give would-be clients a feel for the market and provide a starting point from which to make comparisons. This is probably even more important in the UK, where the difference in the size and resources of a Top Ten- and a Top 50-ranked agency is huge compared with the US. And it's little use networks being allowed to supply financial data to new-business prospects if that data no longer has credibility. Moreover, there's a danger that by being so cautious, the holding companies put their networks at a disadvantage against competitors not bound by the same constraints.

The groups now face an acute dilemma. Their data-collection systems are inadequate to cope with the fast-moving demands of modern business. Yet by imposing an information blackout, they cut off the oxygen of publicity on which they thrive. Never before has there been such a clear need for a financial reporting system that not only satisfies everybody but is legal. The current situation isn't sustainable.