Interpublic: My Dumb Investment

Here at Fool.com, we have a discussion board called My Dumbest Investment. There, new and experienced investors alike share stories of investment dollars lost for all the wrong reasons. I know how they feel.

During the '90s I was working full-time as a PR consultant when I wasn't working for Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW  ) . I was employed by a few agencies. One was a small shop acquired by advertising and marketing conglomerate Omnicom (NYSE: OMC  ) . Another was owned by rival Interpublic (NYSE: IPG  ) . My wife, too, was in the PR biz at the time, employed by a different Interpublic PR shop.

I was a little restless in my gig but she was actually digging hers. And doing well, too. It was enough to convince us to buy Interpublic stock through an employee purchase program. In fact, it was one of the first things we did after getting engaged. Both of our names were plastered neatly on three Interpublic stock certificates that arrived in the mail.

Fast-forward eight years. The certificates are still gathering dust in my office filing cabinet. And losing value. Lots of value. Unfortunately, after Wednesday, there's little hope that will change soon. In reporting Q3 earnings, Interpublic said that year-over-year sales were down more than 5% while its net loss lightened by nearly $1.00 per stub. (That wasn't enough to meet Street expectations, however.)

I'd love to be able to point to cash flow numbers that show better times are ahead. But Interpublic didn't supply a cash flow statement. Or a balance sheet, for that matter. A spokesman reached Thursday morning said he's trying to get them for me; there was no word by the time of publication.

Regardless, I doubt we'd find anything good to say. There isn't much that's redeeming about the advertising and marketing business, after all. That's not to say the market for big agencies has dried up. It's just that the business is harder than it's ever been: Clients are more fickle, prospects are more demanding, and there's zero competitive barrier to keep out small, creative shops, or at very least, it's much lower than it has been. Interpublic's string of big account losses -- including Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) -- bears witness to each of these problems.

Were the agency on firming financial footing (in terms of its revenue stream), I'd say there's reason to believe it will ride out the storm and begin to deliver returns to shareholders. But the company seems to be losing more big accounts than it's gaining. And at the moment, it just looks like my dumbest investment. Sigh.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers still owns shares of Interpublic. You can find out what else is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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