The Advertising Industry is divided into two types of marketing services companies: large international ad agency groups and other domestic-focused entities. While the two types are quite different, they share a few characteristics. All of them help clients sell products or services using one or more media of communications. As the industry serves the entire private sector in the United States, its revenue and earnings follow economic cycles to some extent. Advertising outlay is typically a lagging or late-cycle indicator, falling after the start of a downturn and recovering after the beginning of an upturn.

Marketing through traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio, television) is a mature activity in the U.S., and spending usually increases around 4% in an average year. Expenditures through newer media, the Internet for example, have grown much faster as clients shift ad outlays away from older methods. But, in time, each new medium eventually matures, prompting ad execs to seek other emerging channels.

The industry is not particularly capital intensive, since it contracts out what manufacturing is required and leases necessary office space. In general, capital expenditures are less than annual depreciation costs. Though, occasionally, there may be some controversy over, for instance, a suggestive ad copy, spending to comply with government regulation is not significant. Competitive conditions in the ad industry are not especially egregious, permitting some companies to garner wide margins.

Advertising company pages use the standard Value Line industrial format, with “Cash Flow” per share the basis for estimated value. As only a few of the companies pay dividends, the group is generally not for income seekers. But some of the stocks, from time to time, might offer above-average share-price appreciation potential and appeal to aggressive investors. Those looking for favorable long-term total returns may want to consider the largest international companies.

The Internationalists

International advertising agency groups originally started as independent ad agencies and grew, through acquisitions, to offer broad ranges of marketing services beyond the traditional activities of creating ad campaigns and choosing the media on which to run them. The newer offerings include public relations, marketing research, events management, and other brand-enhancement activities. Large companies seek internal revenue growth of just 1% to 6% a year and expect to boost that to around 10% with acquisitions of ad agencies and other marketing service businesses. The objective is to garner a bigger share of their clients’ total marketing outlays. Buying earnings, though, can be costly, as seen in the high price/earnings multiples paid for companies that specialize in creating and placing advertising on the Internet.

Since the U.S. and Western Europe markets are mature, advertising companies have sought to increase their international reach, growing via overseas expansion and domestic acquisition. In recent decades, total U.S. advertising outlays have averaged about 2% of annual gross domestic product, while emerging market spending has been much lower. Of course, high growth potential comes with greater risks, particularly that of a deep drop in demand. The business prospects of markets like China and India are huge, but advertising spend in these countries could plunge in a tough global economic environment.

Another risk of overseas expansion is the danger that financial planning and control will suffer as the agencies venture ever farther from the U.S. or Europe. That has caused problems for companies in the past, keeping managements mindful of the risk. The announcement of a large overseas acquisition or marketing deal can notably affect the share price of any one of these stocks. Too, with around half of their revenue in foreign currencies, the changing value of the U.S. dollar has had a significant effect on reported earnings and stock valuations. Thus, investors should keep an eye on foreign exchange rates when appraising the international agencies and try to invest in them when the dollar is strong, or even overvalued.                                                                  

Domestic Focused Companies

Members in the other class of the advertising industry are more domestic and offer marketing services through just one or two media. Beside a focus on marketing, these firms have relatively little in common. Media include billboards, free weekly shopping publications, newspaper inserts, and Internet pop-ups. Domestic-focused companies often hold a large market position in their specific niche. Acquisitions are less important for these firms than for the large international agencies. Even so, they have done noteworthy deals in the past.


John Wanamaker, founder of Philadelphia’s first department store, is reputed to have remarked that while he knew half of his ad budget was wasted, he did not know which half. Thus, advertising is essential to most industries that offer products or services to consumers. This industry is mature in the U.S. and Europe, so advertisers seek to grow by acquisition and by entering emerging markets. A company with an already high debt-to-total capital ratio could have difficulty growing. While not particularly cyclical, ad budgets will rise and fall in accordance with business prospects. Advertising outlays often lag the economic cycle, so the industry’s revenue and earnings may well be impacted a quarter or two after a sector’s performance changes. Still, investors should remember that stock prices normally lead changes in operating results.