Starcom CEO’s link with Tremor Video IPO raises conflict of interest issue

May 29, 2013

Laura DesmondYou can gauge the ebullience of equity markets these days from the number of obscure digital media companies with dodgy profit and loss accounts that are confidently seeking an IPO (or listing on the stock exchange as it is more commonly known). They’ve never had it so good… since 1999.

Right now video ad networks – companies that provide a digital video platform for the big marketing services groups serving their ads online –  are flavour of the month. The “space” is currently dominated by Google’s YouTube and Hulu (which you may also have heard of). But video industry experts expect YuMe and Adapt.tv (which you won’t have done, unless you’re in the biz) to declare their hand.

In fact one of them already has: Tremor Video, a big video ad network that has long been eyeing a public listing, announced its IPO a few days ago. It’s typical of the breed. Last year the company lost $16.4m on revenue of $105.2m, the previous year $21m on revenue of $90.3m. But hey, what’s a big red hole when margins are improving and losses decreasing? The stock market is not about today, it’s about tomorrow: and Tremor is selling a great tomorrow, about $86m-worth of it, it hopes, on the NYSE. Already Tremor runs ads on over 500 websites and mobile apps: that figure can be expected to increase exponentially with all the publicity attending a flotation.

So far, so dull. But don’t nod off, because things are about to become considerably more interesting. Tremor has lots of admirers in the business. One of them is Starcom MediaVest Group, owned by Publicis Groupe – which is nearly, but not quite, the world’s largest media buyer. So, a friend worth having you might say. In fact, SMG likes Tremor so much that its business accounts for nearly 20% of the video ad network’s revenue, so I’m told . What that says about PG’s in-house alternative Vivaki I’m not quite sure; maybe things aren’t working out there as well as they should be. But it’s one hell of a vote of confidence in Tremor.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. Except… my eye was caught by a further disturbing detail in the S-1 – a simple IPO pathfinder document filed with the SEC. One of Tremor’s principal directors is Laura Desmond. Not, by any chance that same Laura Desmond (pictured) who has been global CEO of SMG since 2008? I fear it may be the self-same. If so, she’s a very provident – and lucky – woman. Because a small fortune is coming her way very soon. Desmond (that’s Tremor Desmond) was only one of two Tremor board directors to get paid last year: she received a full grant of nearly $300,000 in share options, plus another $175,000-worth which can be vested in equal amounts every month over the next four years. Quite a tidy sum, you’ll agree. But that’s not the full measure of it. The options, I’m told, have been awarded in nominal 2012 terms – at about $1 per share. And should the IPO striking price be $10 per share? Imagine – $3m, or thereabouts.

Enough, certainly, to pay for that sailing trip round the world which the other Ms Desmond has been promising herself for some years.

UPDATE  4/7/2013: Tremor Video’s IPO got off to a rocky start last Thursday, and Laura Desmond may not collect quite so much as she hoped when passing “Go”. The flotation price was $10 per share (as predicted above), below hopeful initial forecasts of $11-13. However, the stock has since spiralled down to a tad under $8. Ms Desmond need feel little despondency, however. There is still a tidy package coming her way. By my calculations (based on the S1 012 Director compensation table), she has already vested over 35% of her 175,000 stock options. Meaning she can cash them in at any time. The rest she must accrue at the vesting rate of 1/48 a month until January 19th 2016. No doubt she would be wise to wait a while until crystallising her nest-egg. At $10 per share, the options would be worth – hardly rocket science – $1.75m. She may – we don’t know this for certain – have to pay the strike price of $3.34 per share, which would reduce her total haul to about $1.2m. Still enough for that ocean cruise, though….

One PPS. Some readers of my original article made the fair point that there is nothing untoward in SMG representing such a large proportion of Tremor’s revenue: it is, after all, one of the world’s largest media buyers. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Pretty precisely, SMG accounted for 17.8% of Tremor’s revenue in 2012. On the above rationale, you would expect GroupM, which is even bigger than SMG, to account for an equivalent portion of that revenue. It does not. As far as I can make out, it spent only $7.5m through Tremor during the same period, a tiny amount by comparison, and has only one major client with them, AT&T. Could be a coincidence, of course. On the other hand, investors should be on their guard that Tremor does not screw up its special relationship with SMG.

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Top Centaur executives Wilmot and Potter fall on their swords

May 15, 2013

Geoff WilmotIt’s a dry, spare document. But beneath the dense, printed undergrowth of Centaur Media plc’s Interim Management Statement 7464E – out on City desks first thing this morning – lies a rich speculative mulch.

Take this, for example:

Geoff Wilmot is stepping down as CEO but has agreed to remain with the business until the end of the financial year in order to implement a smooth handover to Mark Kerswell, who is now interim CEO.

Tim Potter, MD of the Business Publishing division has decided to leave Centaur. The process to appoint his successor has commenced.

Wilmot (above) has been the CEO since 2006, a relic from a bygone era called Print. Kerswell is the group finance director, imported relatively recently from rival publishing house Informa. And Potter? He’s been at Centaur almost as long as I was – which means forever. Or to be more precise, over 25 years.

The clue to the Centaur story is in the departure dates and the word “interim”. This is no carefully planned succession strategy, but a hastily cobbled boardroom putsch designed to appease the moneymen’s ire once they discover (as they now have) that all the high falutin’ promises of earnings growth predicated on Centaur’s transformational but risky £50m acquisition of Econsultancy last summer will not come to pass. Not, at any rate, in the near future.

Here’s another understated gem from the selfsame IMS:

May and June represent two of Centaur’s most important trading months, typically generating in the region of 45% of full year EBITDA.  Visibility of advertising revenues for this period still remains limited and delivery of corporate training revenues is also volatile.

Or put another way, an earnings disaster is on the way. No wonder Centaur’s share price troughed from about 47p to just over 31p this morning on receipt of the news. At all events, we doubt the dip was because share-traders were in deepest mourning for the two departing executives.

What’s gone wrong? Well, undoubtedly Econsultancy, the paid-for content acquisition, has failed to delight. Investors were promised digital steroids. What they’ve got instead is brewer’s droop: some mealy-mouthed excuse about losses in overseas operations.

Tim PotterMore seriously, disappointment over Econsultancy has formed a deadly cocktail with calamity in the print division, which is Mr Potter’s (left) peculiar fiefdom. The wheels have been coming off this vehicle for some time. No amount of penny-pinching and management delayering has been able to disguise a simple truth: the emperor has no clothes, or for that matter, coherent strategy. The promised uptick in print advertising, particularly cycle-sensitive recruitment advertising, is stubbornly refusing to come through. Scarcely surprising, really, given that the economy is dancing around the abyss of a triple-dip. But that’s no consolation for Messrs Wilmot and Potter, who must now play the role of official scapegoats.

Wilmot will be allowed to retire gracefully, through the front door, around the end of June. Potter, however, has been forced to scuttle with immediate dispatch through the dark hole of the tradesman’s entrance, clutching his P45 and the no-doubt-handsome rewards of failure. Such is corporate life.


Why Aberdeen Asset Management wants to be the Intel of financial services

May 7, 2013

Piers Currie - Aberdeen Asset ManagementWhat’s the biggest, most successful, company you’ve never heard of? Impossible to say, of course. But a good candidate would be Aberdeen Asset Management.

It’s in the FTSE-100; it’s genuinely global. And it’s very profitable indeed, judging from its latest interim figures. Just to make the point: profit before tax increased 37% to £223m; earnings were up 43%, while the dividend increased 36%. And it manages financial assets of £212bn.

Yes Siree, the people at the top of this company are heading for deferred bonus payments that will make Sir Martin Sorrell’s look like a storm in a teacup. And, do you know what? There won’t be a squeak of dissent from shareholders.

Anonymity – outside the global capital markets – has served Aberdeen well these past 30 years. It has had little need to trumpet its wares through the megaphone of mass-media publicity, since what it does – trade in equities, fixed income instruments, properties and multi-asset portfolios – is mainly aimed at the wholesale financial market (other people sell the product on), and has little resonance with the punter on the street – unless that punter happens to be reasonably wealthy in the first place. True, Aberdeen has spent some trifling amount on a corporate ID (it looks a bit like a mountainous ‘A’) and does dispose of a £20m annual global marketing budget (peanuts for any equivalently-ranged consumer products company). But most of that money goes on getting a word in the right, expert, ear – via the rapier of PR and that trusty old ambush-marketing technique, the roadshow, rather than the blunderbuss of advertising.

Not any longer, however. This week Aberdeen is launching a global corporate branding campaign – its first since 1983. “Simply asset management”, the strap line, may not sound like rocket-science but, in fact, it is shrewdly timed. And for that, presumably, we must thank Aberdeen’s long-serving head of marketing (now group head of brand), Piers Currie (pictured above).

At a time when interest rates on deposit accounts are near zero (after inflation is factored in, you effectively pay the bank, not the other way round), investors are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a reasonably safe return on their financial investment. They must therefore turn to more risky asset classes – fixed income instruments and, more fashionably, shares. Who to trust in this treacherous financial world, however? Certainly not the universal banks – discredited bancassurance conglomerates that were yesteryear’s financial toast – who have comprehensively fleeced us of our savings, through rank incompetence, downright fraud or a combination of both.

Aberdeen’s modest proposition is that it is a narrow specialist; but within a field where it has gained great expertise and evidence-based returns. Stuff that isn’t going to be lost in the miasma of a bank’s balance sheet, and is there for all to see – should you wish to. There’s been an element of luck here, but also a good deal of judgement. When chief executive Martin Gilbert set up Aberdeen (it was a management buyout from an investment trust, which owed its name to its physical location in Aberdeen), he deliberately targeted emerging markets, and in particular the Far East, as the company’s area of fund management expertise. At the time, ’emerging markets’ were the financial equivalent of  the Wild West. Today, they’re mainstream. Anyone without a decent chunk of his or her portfolio in China, Brazil, India, Hong Kong or Singapore is probably suffering from asset imbalance.

Aberdeen’s sweet-spot won’t, of course, last forever. But while it does, it has – on the evidence so far – a reasonable claim to being regarded as the Intel of financial services.

Which is what this corporate makeover seems to be about.


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