Opinion: Perspective - Why billings figures matter, and why they don't

There are lies, damned lies and the Nielsen billings figures out this week.

Yes, they're a patchy picture of an agency's health. Yes, they don't record direct marketing spend or digital spend. Yes, agencies do a heck of a lot more for their clients now than simply create ads that fit neatly into above-the-line, measurable, media slots. Yes, yes, yes.

Except that, for the moment, they're the best we've got. No signs anything's changing anytime soon either. Income figures would be a truer measure of agency robustness, but Sarbanes-Oxley rules have knifed the public parading of those. And aren't some agencies relieved to have the S-O blanket to hide beneath? So, with as many caveats as you like: what should we make of the latest billings data?

Looking at the pluses and minuses on the main table is a gut-balling rollercoaster: Bartle Bogle Hegarty up 13 per cent, JWT down 25 per cent, WCRS up 87 per cent, Euro RSCG up 32 per cent, Publicis down 25 per cent. Sweeping conclusions are hard to draw. The big networks have had a tough time, except that Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, Euro and TBWA have done well. The hotshops have done well, except that Mother's down by a fifth.

Is there any correlation between creative excellence and success in the billings leagues? A look at Fallon's figures would scream yes: billings up 150 per cent and the best reel in town. But there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Only three agencies in the top ten have any legitimate claims to creative excellence across the bulk of their business.

Those agencies free from network or big holding company politics have generally done better in growth terms: BBH, WCRS, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, VCCP, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, Wieden & Kennedy. The independents or semis are much less reliant on the tumults of globally aligned accounts, and can forge closer, local client relationships that are more robust. Creatively, they're not all premier league, but creative standards are generally more even. Crucially, the agencies outside the big holding company axes seem happier, more confident places to work, which helps explain both their growth and the quality of what they do.

Rock bottom, though, there are some dismal performances on these tables. We might not know the income figures, but if billings fall by a quarter, there are obviously some serious financial consequences attached. After all, the agencies with the steepest declines tend not to be the ones doing lots of work that doesn't involve traditional spend. Some agencies have already gouged out the rot, which has made judging their progress difficult. Some of the worst performers on the charts have new management teams in place that can't be blamed for the disastrous performances suggested here; the management teams still in place at the poorest performers will be holding their breaths. Watch this space.

The good news from all this is that so many agencies have kicked off the new year with a new spirit and new teams with all to prove and nothing to lose. For an industry that has seemed too indecisive for too long, that's a healthy place to be. Last year's billings figures are history.

Compare the creative agency leagues with the media ones and you get vertigo. The biggest ad agency (Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO) bills £386 million. MediaCom, top of the media league, is just shy of £1 billion, and will probably top it once all the straggling spend figures come in.

One billion pounds of media spend going through a single company is a breath-taking, nerve-making, feat. Add in the other WPP media assets and you get to more than £2 billion, channelled through the mighty Group M negotiating unit.

WPP's nearest competitor, Publicis Groupe, can only muster £1.4 billion, and no centralised unit. What's the betting that gets sorted very soon?