Opinion: Perspective - WPP annual report puts US-based rivals to shame

On Tuesday I found myself on the Tube with nothing to read but WPP's 2003 annual report, hot off the press. As the journey was a long one, I had plenty of time to study it.

An annual report is meant to give a snapshot of a company's finances at year-end. WPP's also gives something rarer and more useful. A snapshot of the business on behalf of the whole sector. Insight into where the whole thing may be heading.

A glimpse at some amazing graphic design, courtesy of Sampson Tyrell, Enterprise and Addison. And a bit of wit too.

For those whose preferred Tube reading is why one of the Big Brother housemates wears a leopardskin thong to work, here are some of the juicy bits. The group chief executive, Sir Martin Sorrell, earned £2.13 million last year, compared with £1.59 million in 2002. Western Europe shows little sign of recovery compared with the other major markets. Procurement departments disappear into the background when the work is strong. And there is an explicit statement on the value of creativity in every discipline: "the more awards, the stronger the margins".

Memorable artistic touches abound. There are drawings showing the heads of the operating companies and reports written by each. They are, to a man and woman, smiling. As margins, profits and earnings per share are up after three tough years, they have much to smile about.

The illustrations attempt to capture the personalities behind the job titles by reflecting their hobbies. Predictably, there is an awful lot of skiing, golfing, sailing, hiking and other healthy managerial stuff.

But some individuals stand out. Shelly Lazarus, the head of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, is shown with a frog (she collects toy ones) and a ski. Dominic Proctor, the head of MindShare, is pictured with four bottles, no less, (he collects fine wines) and a rugby ball (his abiding passion).

There are few hobbies - such as ferret racing or collecting samurai swords - that might frighten off potential clients. Most intriguing of all is Andy Berlin of Red Cell who is shown with a picture of William Butler Yeats, a bow and arrow and a tarot card called The Three of Cups. These at least might make a client want to invite him out to lunch, even if it did not offer him the business.

Bob Jeffrey, the new head of J. Walter Thompson, is shown lifting weights next to a work-life balance scale. I find this the least convincing of the lot, not least because it reverts to a mock journalese Q&A format to get the message across. Also, when you have added $608 million in net new business, "put creativity first on our agenda", "ushered in a sweeping infusion of top-rank talent and retained our best" in what sense can you possibly put work-life balance high up the agenda?

Three cheers for Feona McEwan, WPP's media relations supremo, who pulls the whole thing together. By comparison, the reports from Interpublic and Omnicom, far from interesting and exciting the reader, slowly bore you to death with tables and inscrutable figures. You will recall that both companies have had their problems with financial jiggery-pokery; Interpublic's accounting irregularities led to an SEC investigation. Omnicom's image was temporarily tainted by questions surrounding its reporting of growth. Yet neither has used these events as a spur to refresh its annual report and send out a distinct message to staff, clients and shareholders. That, more than Berlin's hobbies, is the biggest mystery of all.