NEW YORK WPP Group said first-quarter revenue fell by almost 4 percent to $1.45 billion.
Excluding acquisitions and currency fluctuations, revenue was flat, beating analysts' expectations of a 1 to 3 percent drop. The company also reported net new business billings of $660 million.
In North America, revenue was up 1 percent. In Europe, the UK was down over 3 percent and continental Europe rose more than 3 percent. Revenue for Asia Pacific Latin America, Africa and the Middle East was up more than 3 percent.
The London-based holding company said it is seeing signs of stabilization, with revenue in North America growing for two consecutive quarters and a consistent slow down in the rate of the company's revenue decline over the past five quarters.
WPP said its operating units are continuing to balance staff costs to revenue. On a like-for-like basis, the total number of employees fell by 1.4 percent from Dec. 31, 2002 to 49,171 at the close of the first quarter on March 31. Compared to the year-earlier quarter, average headcount is down over 5 percent.
The company expects flat revenue growth in 2003, with a decline in the first half offset by an increase in the second half. WPP said first-quarter operating margins are in line with budget, which indicates full year improvement of up to one margin point. In 2002, WPP's operating margin was 12.3 percent.
J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam are all units of the London-based holding company.