Ipsos Half-year results hit by COVID-19

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In H1 2020, Ipsos posted revenue of €786 million, down 13% year-on-year; this decrease breaks down into organic growth of -13.5%, scope effects of +0.6% and exchange rate effects of -0.1%.

After a close to flat performance in Q1, Q2 was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. From April to June 2020, Ipsos posted revenue of €357 million, 25.8% lower than in 2019. At constant scope and exchange rates, this was minus 25.3%; positive scope effects were at +0.6% and negative exchange rate effects at-0.9%.

Sales were down across the three major regions that Ipsos typically tracks.

The Asia Pacific suffered the highest year-on-year fall. It had already been heavily hit at the start of the year, unlike Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA) and the Americas regions that, despite already seeing difficulties in March, had seen some growth in Q1.

Ipsos Half-year results hit by COVID-19 - Brand Spur

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As an exception to the trend in recent years, the weight of emerging markets weakened this half. Revenue there was down 23%, compared with minus 10% in the developed world.

Ipsos, which for many years had seen growth in developing countries, only accounted for 27% of its revenue there as against 31% in 2019 and one third in previous fiscal years.

Large global companies refocused on their home markets and, at the same time, public authorities in developing countries have fewer resources than their counterparts in more prosperous regions.

The gap between developed and less-developed countries narrowed over the past two decades, including in terms of per capita spending on market research and opinion polls. It has once again widened over the past months, potentially complicating the management of the period following the health crisis.

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The performance levels by the audience are very mixed. Consumer sectors became very cautious once the lockdown happened in Europe followed by the Americas in March.

Research targeting their own clients, often conducted for companies of the services sector, also fell sharply.

Unsurprisingly, Ipsos continued to see sustained demand and, in some markets, very strong demand in terms of engaging with patients and citizens.

The pandemic was initially managed by the public agencies responsible for establishing and running health policies. Ipsos has a range of ongoing contracts, the purposes of which are varied.

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Some are designed to create systems to measure the prevalence of the epidemic; other surveys are designed to gain better insights into the opinions, hopes and fears of affected groups or indeed get their views on the measures that have already been put in place or are likely to be in the future.

These projects are sometimes done in a specific country. They may also cover larger regions – in Africa or Latin America for example – and be financed by public and private funds through NGOs and foundations.

In some ways, the variability in the performances posted by Ipsos by audience reflects one of its strengths at a time when every company needs to be highly resilient.

Although businesses were quieter in Q2, aside from pharmaceutical companies or those working in the health sector, public bodies and institutions increasingly turned to reliable sources able to quickly produce large volumes of information.

Income statement items

Overall, the Group’s operating margin was down around 230 basis points on the same period the previous year as a result of the sudden collapse in business as from mid-March. The sharpness of this fall meant we weren’t able to reduce costs to the same extent in H1 because they are partly fixed and were scaled to meet the growth than expected for 2020.

It should also be noted that the research market is traditionally highly seasonal with more demand in H2 as contracts are performed. Accordingly, the revenue recognized in H1 has typically accounted for around 45% of full-year revenue in recent years (at constant scope and exchange rates).

Conversely, operating expenses are accrued on a rather straight-line basis over the year.

For these reasons, the half-year operating margin is in no way predictive of the full-year operating margin.

The gross margin (which is calculated by deducting external direct variable costs of research projects from revenue) stood at 65.1%, compared with 64.5% in H1 2019.

The increase in the percentage gross margin is down to a more favourable mix in data collection mechanisms resulting from the suspension of certain face-to-face survey activities during the lockdown, replaced in some instances by online surveys offering a higher gross margin.

Over half, online surveys accounted for 61% of revenue compared with 55% in 2019.

In terms of operating costs, gross payroll costs were down 3.2%, on the back of the twin effect of a reduction in headcount and various salary reduction measures.

There were 17,730 permanent employees at end-June against 18,448 as at end-December 2019, down 3.9%. This reduction occurred in Q2 following the hiring and replacement freeze.

The salary reduction measures (voluntary and temporary salary reductions agreed by a number of employees – between 10% and 20% for executives -; reduction in working time; unpaid leave;…) generated savings of around €10 million between mid-March and end-June.

Ipsos also benefited from the partial unemployment schemes put in place in certain countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Italia, Malaysia, Netherlands, Hong-Kong, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom).

Such subsidies were recognized under “Other operating income and expenses” and totalled €17.5 million over the half. Payroll costs net of government subsidies were down 7.3%.

The cost of share-based payments was down slightly to €3.4 million compared with €3.7 million in H1 2019.

Overheads are under control and fell around €15 million in total (i.e. -14.5%), thanks to the tightening of certain discretionary expenditure and above all the lack of travel (€8 million) and savings on office use (€3.5 million).

The operating profit was €25.0 million, representing 3.2% of revenue versus 5.5% in H1 2019.

Under the operating margin, the amortization of acquisition-related intangible assets for the portion of goodwill allocated to client relations over the 12 months from the date of acquisition and which is amortized in the income statement over multiple years in line with IFRS. This line item amounted to €2.7 million, compared with €2.8 million previously.

Other non-operating and non-recurring income and expenses totalled -€7.1 million compared with -4.0 million the previous year. This line is composed of exceptional or non-operating items.

In H1 2019, expenses included acquisition costs of €2.0 million as well as €7.9 million in costs associated with the restructuring plans connected with the finalization of the TUP program and the integration of GfK Research.

In H1 2020, the expenses included acquisition costs of €0.6 million associated with the Maritz Mystery Shopping and Askia transactions at end-January and, above all, reorganization and restructuring costs of €11.3 million. This was up on H1 2019 due to the need to bring headcount into line with actual demand in certain countries.

In terms of income, this line item mainly reflected net income of €5.0 million following the decision to capitalize internal development costs as from January 2018 (this net income was €6.4 million in H1 2019).

Financing costs. Net interest costs amounted to €11.6 million compared with €13.1 million, on the back of the reduction in borrowings with strong cash generation.

Income tax. The effective tax rate in the IFRS income statement was 25.4%, compared with 26.0% the previous year.

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This includes deferred tax liabilities of €0.5 million which offsets the tax savings achieved as a result of the tax deductibility of the amortization of goodwill in some countries, even though this deferred tax expense would only be due in the event of the disposal of the operations in question (and which is thus restated in adjusted net profit).

Net profit (attributable to the owners of the parent), amounted to €1.3 million compared with €18.7 million in H1 2019.

Adjusted net profit (attributable to the owners of the parent), which is the relevant indicator consistently used to measure performance, amounted to €12.8 million, down 56.5% from the €29.4 million in H1 2019.

Financial structure

Cash flow. Gross cash flow from operating activities (before WCR, Taxes and interests) amounted to €58.7 million compared with €86.7 million in H1 2019. This decline reflected the lower operating profit.

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In total, Free Cash Flows hit a record of €161 million. It was in line with forecasts in Q1 but was particularly high in Q2 due to the strong sales at end-2019 and early 2020 which drove inflows over the half. This went hand-in-hand with lower demand from mid-March, which resulted in a reduction in trade receivables as of June 30, 2020.

The working capital requirement thus trended positively by €167.3 million in H1 2020. Usually, when a business is growing, trade receivables increase, resulting in an investment in the working capital requirement, as happened at June 30, 2019 (negative €14.1 million change in working capital requirement).

Current investments in property, plant and equipment and intangible assets mainly involved IT investments. They totalled €20.4 million in H1 versus €21.2 million over the same period last year.

In terms of non-current investments, Ipsos invested close to €15.4 million, primarily making two acquisitions in Q1: Maritz Mystery Shopping and Askia. These two companies were consolidated as from February 1, 2020.

Equity stood at €1,055 million at June 30, 2020, compared with the €1,122 million reported at December 31, 2019.

Net borrowings stood at €441.0 million, down on December 31, 2019 (€574.6 million). Net gearing was down to 41.8% from 51.5% at December 31, 2019, and 59.1% at June 30, 2019.

Cash position. Year-end cash hit record levels of €306.9 million at June 30, 2020, compared with €165.4 million at December 31, 2019, giving Ipsos a strong cash position. The Group also has over €400 million in available credit facilities, allowing it to meet its debt repayments in 2020 and 2021.

Lastly, it should be noted that the General Shareholders’ Meeting held on May 28, 2020, approved a dividend of €0.45 per share in respect of the 2019 fiscal year. This was paid out on July 3, 2020, and totalled €19.8 million. This payout was cut in half from the €0.89 per share initially considered in February 2020.

Outlook for 2020 and beyond

The epidemic has been relatively static for the past weeks. It is thus difficult to gage how long the crisis will last.

It seems reasonable to assume and this is clearly the most likely outcome, that business will be affected so long as we have no treatment or vaccine.

It is thus hoped that the authorities will not have to impose further total lockdowns like those seen in most countries in recent months. The businesses of Ipsos clients, and hence of Ipsos itself, were heavily hit by the lockdowns.

At mid-March, the lockdowns already in place in China, other parts of Asia and Italy became the order of the day elsewhere. There were without doubt differences. For example, in Europe, the rules were stricter in Spain, where the army was deployed, than in Germany.

That said, the consequences were identical. Economies came to a standstill. Ipsos saw its order book deflate during March (-40%) and April (-60%). May saw a softening (-28%) although cancellations and the scaling back of existing orders remained higher than anticipated. This thus delayed a more satisfactory upswing in business.

As already noted, Ipsos was adversely affected by a combination of three factors: The business performance of its clients; uncertainties as to what the world will look like going forward – right after the lockdown ends and the time after that – when we (finally!) come out of the health crisis; and, thirdly, the technical and legal obstacles preventing the performance of certain contracts that require repeated close contact between people.

Bringing consumers together to get them to collectively experience in a dynamic environment this or that market situation is almost impossible. Going to consumers’ homes to observe their behaviour or test this or that product is not an option…

Nevertheless, despite these constraints, some of which still remain, Ipsos has seen business tick up over the past weeks. The volume of cancellations and postponements is falling and new order flows are growing.

The aforementioned negative factors are still live, but have less impact or can be overcome.

Firstly, Ipsos’s clients – large or medium size companies or institutions – are required, at the risk of becoming irrelevant, to work, evolve, take initiatives, to adapt to new realities. To this end, even if they have limited resources, they need quality up to date information.

Next, these same clients are seeing their consumers and clients come out of the total lockdown they had faced, at least in certain regions. Every company, regardless of its sector and footprint, must be able to adapt, move quickly and, where possible, stay relevant.

The uncertainties in play in the Spring mitigating against the services offered by Ipsos and its competitors are becoming reasons to acquire market data.

Lastly, Ipsos’s teams have worked really hard since the start of the health crisis: their efforts focused on two key areas:

i) developing new scientific and technological approaches to enable ways of working that are compatible with protective measures including the wearing of masks and social distancing, and

ii) ramping up the use of webinars and other publications and continuing constructive dialogue with their clients. Many companies in the business services sector took similar steps.

We feel that making the most of the resources of a company like Ipsos operating worldwide, managing 70,000 different projects annually and employing 18,000 professionals, has allowed us to add value to those engaging with us and to stand out.

Ipsos’ recent ranking, in the GRIT report, as the most innovative market research company worldwide for the second year running reflects this.

All of these various strands made it possible to post encouraging results: After three months of sharp declines, Ipsos’ order book turned slightly positive in June. This was partly due to the winning of new public contracts associated with the COVID-19 epidemic; overall, at end-June, it stabilized at around minus 10%.

Beyond that, there continues to be significant uncertainty, meaning that it is impossible to accurately predict Ipsos revenue for the remainder of the year.

Thanks to the work done by its teams, the increased digitalization of its information communication, analysis and production systems, and it’s market and customer insights, Ipsos expects, despite the uncertainties, to see a better performance in H2 2020 than in the first half, both in terms of sales and revenue and its operating margins.

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