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WPP stock falls to lowest level since 2012 on news of fourth-quarter slowdown

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Mark Read, CEO of WPP Group, the largest global advertising and public relations agency, poses for a portrait at their offices in London, Britain, July 17, 2019.
Toby Melville | Reuters

WPP's stock has fallen sharply as the company forecast flat organic revenue and headline operating profit for 2020.

The company, which is the world's largest ad agency group, reported a 1.9% drop in organic sales less pass-through costs for its final quarter on Thursday. This compares with 0.5% growth for the previous quarter. The stock was trading at 777.40 points during early deals Thursday, its lowest level since 2012.

Like other ad agency groups, WPP is grappling with new types of competitor such as consultancies and tech companies. Accenture Interactive was named the world's largest digital agency by industry publication Ad Age in 2019, while Google and Facebook are taking more ad dollars because they are "walled gardens," using their own data to target consumers. Large companies are also looking to be more efficient with their ad buys so people see ads an optimum number of times.

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The company is in the middle of a three-year turnaround plan and WPP CEO Mark Read said the company had achieved its restructuring targets through the sale of companies such as Kantar. "I am optimistic about the future of our industry and WPP's position within it, although there is still much more work to do. The marketing landscape has never been more dynamic and complex," he said in an online release.

It has merged traditional ad agencies such as JWT and Wunderman, which became Wunderman Thompson last year, and sold stakes in companies such as podcast company Gimlet and online magazine Refinery29.

WPP's 2021 target is to reach organic growth in line with the industry and a headline profit margin of at least 15%.

WPP lost large clients including Vodafone, Johnson & Johnson and Disney in 2019, but won the $360 million Signet Jewelers account and also picked up Mondelez, worth $350 million, according to its analyst presentation.