Corporately, the 2010 agency scene has been remarkable in only one respect: the absence of a big, transformative deal. Consolidation, the key underlying trend of the past decade or so, seems to have stopped in its tracks.
True, there have been some near misses. Most notably, Dentsu nearly acquired digital network AKQA for about $600m, but backed off at the last minute over fears about the excessive price, not to mention the perceived hostility of AKQA’s senior management.
Publicis Groupe, however, did not launch its much-touted (not least by me) all-shares takeover bid for a holed-below-the-waterline Interpublic Group. And Vincent Bolloré, chairman of Havas, did not conclude the longest hostile takeover bid in history by acquiring the 70% of Aegis Group he does not already own.
Symbolic of this lacklustre M&A year has been the muted activity of the sector’s most aggressive actor, WPP. Group chief Sir Martin Sorrell restricted himself to useful infilling, of which the most decorative has been the acquisition this week of Blue State Digital, the agency that helped to propel Barack Obama into the White House, and the bankrolling of Peter Mandelson’s consulting business, Global Counsel. The £100m channelled into acquisitions this year is mere pocket money compared with WPP’s last big splurge – £1.1bn spent on buying research company TNS in late 2008.
Now I know New Year crystal-gazing is a dangerous thing – not least because the wildly inaccurate predictions, which often result, come back to haunt you. But I do believe change is in the air. No, really.
One straw in the wind is Omnicom’s return to the poker table after about a decade’s absence. Chief executive John Wren has pooh-poohed suggestions that his company will seek out transformative deals of the Razorfish (Publicis) and 24/7 Real Media (WPP) kind. But he has acknowledged Omnicom’s backwardness in the digital sphere and announced a Big Leap Forward. Typically, this is to take the form of partnerships rather than outright acquisition. All of which has not stopped Omnicom from getting into intensive negotiations to acquire eCRM company Communispace for about $100m (we may know the result of these quite soon; I gather there are some tax complications). Note that Omnicom has access to $2bn of revolving credit, with the option of an extra $500m.
Nor, for all the caveats that must surround any such bid, should we expunge Publicis/IPG from the script. Publicis has been put off its stride during 2010 by a messy succession crisis, which has now been settled for the time being. If anything, IPG’s plight has worsened during that time. To add to chief executive Michael Roth’s woes (prime among them, a smouldering fire in the IPG engine room, McCann Erickson), it looks very likely that one of his principal networks, DraftFCB, will lose its $1bn signature account, SC Johnson (which it has handled for decades).
And let’s remember that Aegis is not off the hook, either. Probably the most significant agency deal of 2010 was Aegis’ £200m acquisition of Mitchell Communications in July. Back then it seemed a shrewd move, and not only for Harold Mitchell, the eponymous founder, who ipso facto became a 4% holder of Aegis stock. In return, Aegis reckoned it had got significant exposure to Australasia, and a form of insurance against another hostile sortie from Bolloré – even if it did pay top Australian dollar for the privilege.
I have since heard the deal wasn’t quite as margin-enhancing as Aegis chief Jerry Buhlmann would have had us believe at the time. Mitchell has now admitted that revenues are not all they were cracked up to be. At any rate, Aegis has had to reissue its circular, with certain embarrassing amendments to corporate expectations contained therein. How Bolloré must be laughing all the way to his bank (Mediobanca).