The reality of M&C Saatchi lies beyond the billings
A view from Maisie McCabe

The reality of M&C Saatchi lies beyond the billings

On Thursday morning last week, there were two versions of M&C Saatchi's performance in 2014. One was reported to the City - M&C Saatchi plc's UK group revenue had grown by 9 per cent year on year, driven by CRM and mobile.

The other was in these pages, with the annual Nielsen league tables and the Campaign School Reports.

The billings attributed by Nielsen to M&C Saatchi London, the ad agency, declined by 34 per cent year on year in 2014, after the shop lost both Dixons and Direct Line. As a result, M&C Saatchi sat at number 19 in the table, dropping out of the top ten for the first time. It was a dramatic fall but not a precise measure of the agency’s performance.

The biggest problem I have with the Nielsen billings as a metric is that we do not have anything better to go on. Agencies whose holding companies are listed in the US cannot provide true revenue data owing to Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. And others use those rules to withhold information they would prefer to keep to themselves (such as the identity of their biggest clients), even when their sibling agencies supply it freely.

Billings do provide an estimate of an agency’s general health, if not the exact temperature. I understand that revenue at M&C Saatchi London did decline last year, not a by a third but by low-to-mid single figures.

But there is more to it than that. Under the group chief executive, Lisa Thomas, M&C Saatchi has successfully expanded into new services. Both Lida and M&C Saatchi Mobile’s revenues increased well above the overall 9 per cent reported last week. The ad agency now forms little more than a third of the overall group. Moreover, big digital wins such as RBS Group, Boots and Unilever aren’t reflected in the Nielsen measure.

The biggest problem I have with the Nielsen metric is that we do not have anything better to go on

The trumpeted DE Master Blenders win, meanwhile, is billed outside the UK. And then there’s the question of where to put the House of Peroni, an increasingly important part of Peroni’s wider marketing strategy.

Yet for M&C Saatchi London’s share to decrease because of declining revenues – even if profit is relatively steady – is hardly a deliberate strategy at Golden Square.

Far more desirable, of course, would be for the agency to grow in line with its sister offerings, thus swelling the overall pie.  

In a week when the Tories have returned to the "tax bombshell" narrative of 1992, the guiding influence of M&C Saatchi’s brutal simplicity of thought is starting to come through. Picking up the Department of Health’s "healthy living" briefs in February was a sign of resurgence. Both M&C Saatchi shareholders and employees will be hoping that the DoH work is the start of the agency’s own mercury moving in the other direction.