We’re all locked inside. And that means we’re all watching Netflix, shopping Amazon, and perusing Facebook & Instagram and googling places we wish we could visit. That means all of these companies will benefit from the virus, right? Facebook and Google must be killing it with advertising revenue.
Facebook just put out this somewhat misleading press release. In a gist, it says app usage is skyrocketing…
“Much of the increased traffic is happening on our messaging services, but we’ve also seen more people using our feed and stories products to get updates from their family and friends. At the same time, our business is being adversely affected like so many others around the world. We don’t monetize many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement, and we’ve seen a weakening in our ads business in countries taking aggressive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Both Facebook and Google make money off of small-and-mid-sized businesses. While having a lot of users allowed them to begin charging businesses for ads, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are making money off all the users. More on that later.
The interesting thing about them is that they have been fast growing through the past ten years, but weren’t really around in the past. Therefore, the business model hasn’t really been tested through a real recession.
Advertising is cyclical. This makes some intuitive sense. When business is going well, you have extra funds left over that can be used for generating more sales. Or competition is higher because there is room for it and so you need to maintain market share. YOU may even be the new entrant trying to gain that share.
In a downturn, cuts have to be made. If I am a restaurant, I can’t really sacrifice much on food costs or labor or else my customers may have a bad experience. If I also have a feeling that consumers don’t really want to spend money right now (e.g. unemployment is going up) then why not cut my advertising spend? It ripples through the chain.
As the saying goes, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” This has historically resulted in cuts to spend since CEOs don’t feel like they are getting the bang for the buck.
Here is a snapshot of “old school” advertising companies’ peak-to-trough in the Great Financial Crisis (GFC).
Note, for the TV broadcasters I am using 2-yr average results given election years play a factor in results.
I also use gross profit given incremental margins matter so much in advertising. Quick Segway: If I have an existing network of 10 billboards in a town and 9 of them are on rent, you can see how getting that last billboard on rent would result in meaningful profit to the bottom line. My sales go up ~11%, but my costs barely go up. True in nearly all advertising and very true for Facebook and Google. Ok back to the main points.
What Can We Expect from the Tech Behemoths
I highly doubt many people are truly thinking about Facebook or Google’s earnings declining at all in 2020, but it’s something worth pondering.
Facebook on its Q4’19 earnings call stated there are now, “140 million small businesses that use our services to grow.” Google, in its filings, specifically discusses how its targeted ads let small businesses connect with customers.
If the virus ripples through our economy, taking down small restaurants and bars, local gyms, and people pull back on buying cars from their local auto dealer — that could clearly impact Facebook and Google’s results. With most restaurants closed right now, why would I advertise as much?
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see where Facebook and Google make their money by segment. It’s much easier to know that Yelp generates most of its money from restaurants looking to promote themselves in a competitive field. Not true for the tech behemoths though.
We have some financial history with Google, given its IPO was in 2004. The problem is that it was secularly growing during the GFC. Google does $162BN of revenue today. It did $16.6BN in 2007 at the “market peak”. It kept growing through the GFC, though growth did slow to just 8.5% in 2009 over 2008.
Sell side estimates currently expect 16.7% growth in 2020 for Google… on much larger numbers. Facebook is expected to grow 20%. These may prove aggressive.
Impact from the Virus
I do not think it is out of the realm of possibility that we could see sales growth slow meaningfully for the tech giants. This will lead to a reset of expectations, though admittedly, the two ad tech giants trade for reasonable multiples (believe FB is 12x earnings ex-cash). My larger fear is the reset of investors’ view of the business as whole — they may no longer be bulletproof.
That said, if I am in charge of an ad budget, this may accelerate my shift away from traditional media and to Facebook and Google. People are at home, shopping online, then why not. Plus, its super-high ROI advertising spend. In other words, I don’t pay Google unless someone clicks on the ad, so I’m only paying if the ad works.
This dynamic may finally get rid of the adage I mentioned above – I now know if my ad is working. And because of this we could see more resiliency out of the new advertising names and it could be a bloodbath for traditional names. However, it still holds true that I’m not going to buy an ad, or at least as many, when I’m struggling to pay payroll or rent.
Separate Challenges for Google
Google has been expanding in the travel space, in fact encroaching on ground owned by Booking’s Kayak or Expedia. Booking said in its latest 10-K:
Some of our current and potential competitors, such as Google, Apple, Alibaba, Tencent, Amazon and Facebook, have significantly more customers or users, consumer data and financial and other resources than we do, and they may be able to leverage other aspects of their businesses (e.g., search or mobile device businesses) to enable them to compete more effectively with us. For example, Google has entered various aspects of the online travel market and has grown rapidly in this area, including by offering a flight meta-search product (“Google Flights”), a hotel meta-search product (“Google Hotel Ads”), a vacation rental meta-search product, its “Book on Google” reservation functionality, Google Travel, a planning tool that aggregates its flight, hotel and packages products in one website and by integrating its hotel meta-search product into its Google Maps app.
This is a problem for Booking and Expedia because they use Google to generate leads for their own sites. While Google may eventually consume these businesses, they also represent non-trivial amounts of their revenue.
Our performance marketing expense is primarily related to the use of online search engines (primarily Google), meta-search and travel research services and affiliate marketing to generate traffic to our websites.
How much was “performance marketing” expense? $4.4BN in 2019 for Booking and $3.5BN for Expedia.
I bring all of this up for a reason: While Google may eventually compete away these businesses, but today they matter. And those businesses are likely being crushed by the lack of travel demand right now, which will mean less spending with Google. These are just two companies, but ~5% of sales for Google. Now imagine every hotel chain, restaurant, airline and so on also pulling back… Now weave in the incremental margin we discussed earlier…
This virus is truly something we haven’t seen before. It permeates everything we touch. Long-term, I think Facebook and Google are amazing businesses to own, but don’t be surprised if 2020 is a hiccup and expectations are reset.