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Fallout from the Publicis/Omnicom merger

July 29, 2013

Richard PinderBy Richard Pinder

When first hearing the Publicis and Omnicom merger rumours you could have been forgiven for thinking it to be some silly season gossip.

But as we know POG is not a passing fancy, it is for real. Hats off to Maurice Levy who has consistently shown his ability to be daring, decisive and dynamic just when people least expect it.

So what drove it? And who are the winners and losers? First, two sets of observations:

The announcement was made in Paris, not New York. The Group will be called the Publicis Omnicom Group, not the Omnicom Publicis Group. The revenues of Publicis Groupe are some way below those of Omnicom Group though their market caps are much closer, but it will be a merger 50/50 owned by the two companies shareholders.
After the dust has settled and the merger is done, the silly co-CEO thing is finished with and the company starts to operate normally, the CEO will be John Wren, from Omnicom, the CFO likely to be Randy Weisenberger from Omnicom, the ticker marker on the NYSE will be OMC and largest market for the combined entity will be the USA.

Once the incredulity subsides, you can see the attraction to Maurice and John. And as the above simple summary shows, you can see the game that is being played by both to get the other to agree to the deal. The former gets to show the French establishment what world class really means, a brilliant retirement gig as non executive Chairman of the world’s number one advertising group and without having to go through with the charade of making good his oft delivered promise to Jean-Yves Naouri to be his successor. The latter, within 30 months, gets to run something nearly double the size of OMC today, in seriously good shape in Digital and Emerging Markets, the number one ad agency of the number one spending client in the world – P&G who had only just taken most of their business from OMC – and all without the pain and risk of taking the long road there.

For Elisabeth Badinter it’s a fabulous end to her tenure as Chair of Publicis – seeing the company her father founded in 1926 become number one globally, as well as securing the very strong valuation on her holding that today’s Publicis stock price provides. For a number of senior managers there will likely be the triggering of various unvested options, stock grants and other goodies, not to mention the special dividends, that will mean good will all round. So, off on the August vacances with a spring in their step? Well not everyone…

For a start there is precious little in the announcement about WHY this is better for clients. We can see it’s better for doing deals with the big media partners, old and new. Scale counts there. But when the bulk of the enterprise’s activity is still about finding, creating and executing inspirational ideas to motivate the world’s population to choose one brand over another brand, there is a point beyond which scale can actually be a disadvantage – talent feels lost, ideas get killed by people who have no idea what the clients’ needs are and everything takes too long and costs too much. Well that’s what a large number of large clients have been telling me this past two years since I left Paris as COO of Publicis Worldwide.

There is also the small matter of the $500m savings mooted in the announcement. Publicis Groupe runs lean. Margins are already industry best. So the chances of finding much of the savings there seem slim. It will be interesting to see how the board of BBDO reacts to the likely loss of their top tier international travel rights, or the agencies of DDB cope with tough bonus rules that tie every unit in the company to the performance of those around them, as happens at Leo Burnett or Publicis today.

As a footnote on the winners and losers, spare a thought for those who fought, lost and thought they had won in the long-running soap opera called Maurice Levy’s succession. Just as the game looked like it would soon be over, the sport got changed and everything was different.

It will also be fascinating to see what WPP do about this. They have got used to being the world’s largest and Sir Martin is rarely quiet for long on any topic, let alone one so close to home. Bookies will surely be giving poor odds on a shotgun WPP/IPG or WPP/Havas union.

And me? Well as client choice reduces, the need for new global alternatives will continue to increase. It’s why we started The House Worldwide and it’s why we think it will  be increasingly relevant to clients who want to get back to a world where the client and the brand are more important than the agent promoting it, and where the money is better off going to the talent than to the accountants counting it.

Bigger and smaller, that’s the future of the ad network game.

Richard Pinder is co-founder and CEO of The House International. He was formerly the head of Publicis Worldwide.

 

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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.


Age cannot wither them, nor shareholders vote them off the holding company board

April 16, 2013

David-Jones---Havas-007Whoever said advertising was a young person’s business? The conventional wisdom is that at 40, most ad executives would be advised to investigate a second career. And at 50, they’ll be positively clapped out and  have “post-economic” freedom foisted upon them whether they like it or not.

Superficially, membership statistics for the Institute of Practitioners of Advertisers (IPA – the UK adman’s trade body) bear this theory out. When I last looked (which was admittedly a while ago, but I doubt the demographic profile has improved), the number of members surviving their 50th birthday was a vanishingly small 6%.

But these are just the worker bees. Look at the nerve centre of the hive – the main board of the world’s leading advertising holding companies – and you’ll find that gerontocracy has never had it so good.

I was forcibly reminded of this the other day by Marketing Services Financial Intelligence editor Bob Willott.

Willott has done a demographic survey of the Omnicom main board and found the average age to be an astonishing 70. In his own words:

The oldest of the 13 board members is the chairman and former chief executive officer Bruce Crawford.  He is 84 and has been a director for 24 years. His successor as CEO John Wren is a sprightly 60 and has served on the board for 20 years.

I have yet to do the arithmetic upon the board composition of other global holding companies, but the most superficial of surveys suggests a similar age-profile, if their chief executives are anything to go by. At WPP Group, there is an evergreen Sir Martin Sorrell – still incontrovertibly ruling the roost at 68; and likely to do so for a good while yet unless shareholders go nuclear over his annual pay review. Interpublic Group chairman and CEO Michael Roth sails imperturbably on at 67, despite repeated attempts by the media to unseat him or sell his company to a rival. And at Publicis Groupe we have the grand-daddy of them all Maurice Lévy – 71 – with no successor in sight, despite repeated attempts to pretend he has found one.

All this looks terribly good for that comparative whipper-snapper, David Jones (pictured above). At only 46, the global CEO of Havas can anticipate at least another 25 years at the helm.


HSBC’s £400m global review that never was

March 9, 2013

Chris Clark HSBCSo, what was all that about? HSBC’s group marketing director Chris Clark calls a review of the “£400m” (actually rather less these days) global account late last year. Well, not exactly a review. More a series of private meetings that happen to take in the incumbent agency’s rivals at Omnicom, IPG and Publicis – just in case they have any bright ideas. No fundamental discussions take place on either strategy or creativity, because none are called for, even from the incumbent JWT.

Sniffing a rat, McCann (IPG) and BBDO (Omnicom) pull out. Late yesterday (a good time to bury news) it trickles out that WPP has, er, retained the account. But there have been a few twists of the kaleidoscope. Most salient is that outsider Saatchi & Saatchi (Publicis) will now handle the small-spending (relatively speaking) retail banking and wealth business across Europe and in Latin America. JWT is still at the epicentre, with the global brand business, but will now share the rest of the account with its WPP sister agency, Grey London.

Is this a classic piece of agency punishment meted out by the client? We still like you, WPP: but you’ve gone a bit flabby. So, just to make sure you’re on your toes, we’ll keep you on tenterhooks for a few months and then award a chunk of business to one of your rivals – to see how hungry they are.

Was it simply an exercise in cheese-paring the fees, as JWT officially likes to see it, on the part of one of the world’s wealthiest institutions?

Or is this Chris Clark desperately trying to justify his job as CMO (in all but name)? A marking time exercise, while he and his boss, HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver, dream up a successor to the faded strap line, The World’s Local Bank?

Because, of course, it isn’t anymore. If you rolled the market capitalisation of Barclays, Lloyds Bank and RBS together, they wouldn’t add up to that of HSBC – which remains by far Britain’s largest bank. But internationally, Gulliver has been busy rolling back the borders, with the divestment of businesses from as far afield as Argentina, Russia and Singapore. The proceeds of which were one contributory reason for the humungous profits the bank was able to declare only last week.

In the recent past, Clark has talked up the need to spend more marketing pounds on the product side (i.e., the separate bank businesses) and less on the corporate brand. One reasonable interpretation of this stance is that banks, in these bonus-bashing times, would do well to get their heads down to providing some basic customer service, as opposed to extravagantly boasting about their global expanse.

Another (they are not mutually exclusive) is that Clark and his colleagues haven’t got a clue what they should do. “In the future” doesn’t quite do it, does it? And in any case, as Clark himself once quipped, it’s more of a start than an end line.


The man who didn’t cause the world’s most infamous marketing disaster dies

March 8, 2013

edselsThe death late last month of Roy Brown Jr, aged 96, is a timely reminder of that old adage: success has many authors; failure but one scapegoat. The reality, as we shall see, is not uncommonly the inverse.

Brown was Ford’s top designer during the Fifties and it was his misfortune to be saddled with historical responsibility for one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time. The Ford Edsel was conceived in 1955, born in the 1958 model year and unceremoniously euthanised in late November 1959. In that time it had cost Ford a record $350m, the equivalent in today’s money of about $2.8tr.

Critics rounded on the controversial “horse collar” or “toilet-seat” chrome grille, in which some amateur psychologists even descried a vulva, as the car’s killer feature. Admittedly, over 50 years later, it’s hard to regard that grille as an aesthetic triumph – but, with hindsight, it’s surely no more than a fairly conventional attribute of the overblown fin-styled float-boats of the time. In any case, Brown was not ultimately responsible for the grille. His concept was a much more restrained vertical opening, perhaps à la Alfa; it was overruled by Ford engineers, who deemed it too narrow for radiator-cooling efficiency.

The wider truth about the Edsel – and the calamity that engulfed it – is that it was not just an automobile style, not just a car, but a range of cars, a new manufacturing division and, most disastrous misconception of all, a market segment that never existed.

In reviewing the consumer boom in 1950s America, Ford market “research” had concluded the car manufacturer was in need of more careful market segmentation. Its top end range – Lincoln and Mercury – was found to be competing – horror of horrors – with more downmarket marques such as Oldsmobile and Buick at General Motors. Solution: push Lincoln further upscale with the new Continental marque, which would compete more credibly with Cadillac. And introduce a new mid-market marque, the Edsel, which would slot in just below Mercury and just above Ford.

Simple, eh? Except Ford senior management then went on to commit a series of textbook marketing errors. The research was fatally flawed: by 1957 middle Americans were tightening their belts as a mini-recession beckoned. If anything, they were looking downmarket, at more value for money. Speaking of which, Ford then committed error number two, it got greedy with its pricing. The new segment competed nearly head on with Mercury, undermining the latter’s perceived value. At the same time, the bottom end of the Edsel range overlapped Ford’s better-equipped and better-value-for-money Fairlane 500.

Error number three was the name. No one had a clue what it should be, so the task was delegated to Edsel’s agency, Foote Cone & Belding – which duly obliged with no less than 6,000 paralysing suggestions, none of which quite did the business. True, four of them – Citation, Corsair, Pacer and Ranger – ended up as model names. But that still left the awkward issue of the umbrella brand unresolved. What then happened almost beggars belief. While Ford chairman Henry Ford II – a known sceptic of the whole brand segmentation idea – was abroad, the board took it upon themselves to name the marque after his father, the oddly-named Edsel – in honour of the Ford family. An unintentional hostage to fortune if ever there was one.

All things considered, the Edsel actually had a reasonable launch. It undershot expectations, but still managed to be one of the biggest model launches to date. From there on in, however, it was rapidly downhill. As the recession bit and sales stalled, the vultures began to circle. Some actually thought the styling and layout of the vehicle (which shared a platform with other Ford marques) was too conventional (!). Others criticised the range for coming up with innovations, such as the Teletouch automatic transmission selector, which were too complex for the consumer of the time. And certainly there were reliability and after-market problems.

robert_mcnamaraGetting the picture? Biffed on all sides, sales tanking; enter Robert McNamara – Hank the Deuce’s axeman. Better known to history as the man who, as Secretary of Defense, thought up the “body-count” as a means of conjuring defeat in Vietnam into victory, in the late Fifties McNamara (left) was a whizz kid consultant at Ford, who shared his chairman’s deeply-held conviction (or was that prejudice?) that Ford was over segmented, and would do well to get back to core brand values. It was death for the new but massively underperforming marque by several strategic cuts – cuts in the marketing and advertising budget; cuts in the production budget and cuts in the management overheads. The separate Edsel division was soon dissolved, but the Edsel itself limped on for a while as rebadged, retrimmed and overpriced Ford models in all but name.

And Roy Brown, the man who got blamed for it in the popular imagination? He lived to fight another day, as chief designer of Ford’s first world-car, the Cortina. Not only that, he kept faith with the Edsel, an immaculate example of which he continued to drive until his dying days.

For Brown’s estate, at any rate, the Edsel will have proved a good investment. Showroom-condition models now achieve prices in excess of $100,000.


Supermarkets should remember the consequences of the Perrier scandal

February 18, 2013

Malcolm WalkerDuring the early part of 1990, health officials in North Carolina, USA, made an alarming discovery. Some Perrier bottled mineral water, whose purity was so legendary they had used it to benchmark other water supplies, was found to be contaminated with minute traces of benzene.

Benzene is a natural component of crude oil. Ingested in sufficient quantities, it can cause cancer in humans. Of course, there was no question of that happening in North Carolina. As a Federal Food and Drug Administration official drily observed at the time: “At these levels there is no immediate hazard. Over many years, if you consumed about 16 fluid ounces a day, your lifetime risk of cancer might increase by one in a million, which we consider a negligible risk.”

But no one was listening to the FDA’s voice of reason. Panic broke out all over the USA – and not just there. Perrier, at that time world leader in the mineral water category, was obliged to withdraw its entire global inventory of 160 million bottles. Brand integrity was further compromised by the discovery that the “natural” bubbles in the bottled potion were actually added back later. Perrier never fully recovered: it lost its leadership and became just another branded mineral water, albeit still a famous French one. Commercially, the crisis was if anything even more disastrous. The independent Perrier bottled water company was, within two years, sold to Nestlé.

I think you know where I’m leading with this. Fast-forward 23 years, to a full-page ad that appeared in yesterday’s national newspapers. It was inserted by Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of  leading UK food retailer Iceland. Its purpose was to divert responsibility for the horse meat scandal now engulfing our supermarkets by pointing the finger of blame at cheapskate procurement in local government, the National Health Service – and its equally unscrupulous counterpart in the catering industry – which has connived at bringing down processed food costs to their lowest possible denominator. Doubtless, judging from the ensuing squawks of indignation, the Iceland boss has a point – though how exactly his tirade exonerates the supermarkets from their own ruthless manipulation of supplier lines is not entirely clear. However, Walker does not stop there. Having scored some points on behalf of his sector, he then goes on to trash it by adopting a “holier than thou” approach:

“Iceland does not sell cheap food. We sell high-quality own label frozen food that is good value. We do not sell – and never sold – ‘white pack’ economy products.” Unlike, he carefully does not add, Tesco and Asda. And, just to ram the point home, he goes on to claim that “no horse meat has ever been found in an Iceland product”.

Well, almost none. At the bottom of the ad there is a mealy-mouthed admission that 0.1% of equine DNA was indeed found in two Iceland Quarter Pound burgers. But these don’t count, because the test, carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, was not an “accredited” one, and the discovered traces of horse were “well below the current accepted threshold level” of 1%. So, yaboo sucks to any critics.

Nice one, Malcolm. You’ve managed to spread, or at least smear, the blame far and wide, and thrown into the processor just a hint of xenophobia. Ireland, Romania, France – these horse-eating monkeys, they’re not like us – not to be trusted, whatever their professions of rigorously adhering to EU-wide standards. But, leaving aside the lowly populism of his message, Walker, in waxing eloquent about the infinitesimal amount of contamination in his own burgers, has committed a revealing tactical blunder.

Perrier logoThe current food scandal is not about parts per billion contaminants found in horse meat; it’s about trust in the brand. Just like the benzene found in Perrier all those years ago, consumers would have to ingest an awful lot of horse burger infected with “bute” equine painkiller (over 500 250 gram ones, to be precise) before experiencing any appreciable side effect. But that won’t prevent them passing summary judgement on those august brands – at the head of the supply chain – that have allowed this scandal to happen: namely the UK grocery multiples.

Possibly with devastating consequences for future sales.

One interesting aspect of this scandal is that its ramifications have now moved on from cheap lines of processed meat – in short, “poor people” – to ready-made meals. In the other words, the sort of thing consumed by affluent and articulate members of the middle-class. That’s bad news even for elite purveyors, such as Waitrose and M&S.

In all probability there’s nothing to worry about. But that’s not the point, is it? My local butcher tells me business has gone gang-busters over the past couple of weeks. And for good reason. In the past, there was a perception (false, as it happens, in many cases) that local businesses could not match supermarket fresh meat prices. Now, understandably, people seem a lot more concerned about local provenance. If you must have lasagne, it’s as well to see the meat being minced while you wait, rather than trusting the word of some supermarket about the integrity of its supply line.


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