US bans agency network figures

Leaders of Britain's ad industry are frustrated by the decision of the world's leading communication groups to pull a veil of secrecy over their billings and income figures.

The groups say that they will no longer release financial data about their agency networks to publications, including Campaign, for ranking tables for fear of breaking a new US law.

Interpublic, WPP, Publicis Groupe, Grey and Omnicom are worried that they will suffer heavy fines and that senior executives could face going to jail if they supply unaudited figures.

The move will mean the end of the IPA's annual table, which ranks agencies by income. The trade body has spent several years persuading agency bosses to disclose the figures.

The groups claim they have acted on legal advice following the passing of a corporate reform law by the US Congress last summer.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, introduced in the wake of the scandals involving Enron and WorldCom, forbids making financial disclosures that do not conform to the accounting standard known as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

Sir Martin Sorrell, the WPP group chief executive, said the group "could be in violation of the spirit and, perhaps, the letter of the law" if it provided financial data to publications for league tables.

The groups will continue to allow their agencies to reveal financial data and revenue estimates for new business won to prospective clients on the understanding that the information remains confidential.

However, the holding companies are facing mounting criticism that they are subverting the true purpose of an act designed to promote greater transparency.

The move is being interpreted as an acknowledgment by the groups that billings figures have been consistently hyped by operating companies.

Hamish Pringle, the director-general of the IPA, said: "We think that this is a retrograde step. We have spent years promoting agencies as small or medium-sized companies that punch above their weight and trying to dispel the myth created by billings that they are large corporations. This decision can only perpetuate that misconception."