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InterPublicis Groupe – who would run it?

August 3, 2012

The market, as I said last week, is awash with rumours that Publicis Groupe is about to pounce on poor old Interpublic.

No, really – seriously awash. So much so that IPG stock had jumped more than 10% to $10.87 when I last looked, on speculation that PG is considering a $15-a-share paper-and-cash knock-out deal which would value IPG at $6bn. Rothschild is said to be working feverishly behind the scenes with other banks.

And IPG, what is it saying? “It is our policy not to comment on market rumors or speculation.” So, that might be a yes then. Publicis Groupe? Impenetrable silence. The rumour has got the investment community hooked, that’s for sure:  “We think the reports are credible,” Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser tells us in a research note.  Wieser is a former Interpublic executive who worked at its MagnaGlobal arm.

But how credible? Sure, from a financial engineering point of view it looks plausible. It would catapult Publicis Groupe to second largest marketing services group by revenue, behind WPP – creating a spectacular rejoinder to Dentsu’s stunning $5bn takeover bid for Aegis. And mean that PG pdg Maurice Lévy could exit the stage after a high ‘C’ that cracks all the chandeliers.

Client conflicts? Not as bad as they might seem at first sight – given the size of these two behemoths. For example, they share L’Oréal and Nestlé; they have shared General Motors. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded being a fly on the wall when Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Robert McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble, first heard the rumour. It’s not just a question of client conflict – the two rivals reputedly loathe each other.

But here’s my real question. Who is going to run the new show? A sophisticated French adman who is too old and keeps telling us he is about to retire? Or a US former corporate lawyer (step forward Michael Roth) whose track record in running a publicly quoted marketing services company is at best indifferent? Would anyone except a Frenchman be allowed to run such a company, given that Publicis Groupe is such a national treasure? And if a Frenchman, who has the stature?

Over two years ago I flagged up the possibility of just such a merger. Then, like now, IPG’s share price was depressed and the moment seemed opportune.

At that time, PG had recently acquired an expensive M&A expert from Goldman Sachs called Isabelle Simon, whose skills were exactly matched to crafting just such a financial operation. And the PG succession crisis seemed a lot less pressing than it is today.

Simon clearly got fed up waiting. Last year she defected to a Monaco gambling organisation.

UPDATE 6/8/12: It turns out IPG bid fever is no more than a symptom of mid-summer madness. Publicis has released, tardily it must be said, the following statement: “Publicis Groupe denies having engaged in any discussions with Interpublic Group of Companies and confirms that it has not commissioned any bank to undertake any such discussions.” There is of course room to manoeuvre within the terms of this statement. Notice, for example, that Publicis does not exclude the possibility of having planned such a bid, merely having “discussed” it with IPG or one of its investment intermediaries. Nevertheless, the denial puts the dampers on a merger which, these days, doesn’t add up so compellingly for PG.

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£1.7bn global ad review is creative solution to Johnson & Johnson’s money problem

July 25, 2012

It would be nice to think that Johnson & Johnson’s newly announced review of its £1.7bn annual advertising spend was driven by a need for greater creative consistency. But it isn’t.

Money’s the thing – saving it that is. J&J may be one of the world’s biggest brands, but it’s also a company in trouble. Since 2009 J&J has suffered numerous recalls in the US, mainly of its over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Benadryl; but the prescription and medical devices businesses have also been hard hit. All in all, it’s said to have lost $1bn in sales, partly through bad luck and mostly through sheer incompetence.

At first it was the staff – including the marketing department – who paid, by being made surplus to requirements. Now it is the spend that’s being trimmed. Judge for yourself from the officialspeak: “Johnson & Johnson is conducting a global agency review and consolidation to build greater value and deliver innovative and fully integrated solutions for our consumer brands.” Well, they wouldn’t want less innovative solutions would they? And they could hardly be less fully integrated than they are at the moment.

In truth, there’s an easy win here for the new kid on the block, Michael Sneed – who became J&J’s top marketing (and PR) officer at the beginning of this year. There could hardly be a less efficient way of running your global marketing services than the one that exists at the moment. Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and All are at the advertising trough. It would be simpler to name a global marcoms group that isn’t on the roster.

WPP has business through JWT and AKQA; Publicis Groupe through Razorfish; Interpublic through Deutsch, Lowe, The Martin Agency and R/GA; Omnicom through DDB and BBDO; and Havas through Euro RSCG. That leaves, er, Dentsu and MDC off the list.

Sneed is a company lifer who, at various stages of his J&J career, has shown considerable sensitivity towards advertising creativity. It will be interesting to see whether this natural instinct gets overridden by the all-powerful imperative of saving the company money. Don’t expect a self-aggrandising Ewanick moment – Sneed seems too modest for that. Do expect a financial deal, of the “Team WPP” or more likely “Commonwealth” variety, that dresses up financial expediency as a coherent creative solution.

The most interesting thing about this review may be the losers. If Interpublic is among them, perhaps group CEO Michael Roth will at last seek to do a deal with Publicis Groupe. The air is certainly thick with rumours to that effect at the moment.


McCann and Goodby to work together on global Chevy brief, but how harmoniously?

March 28, 2012

Once again, General Motors CMO Joel Ewanick has demonstrated his ability to surprise and to innovate, with the announcement of his “Commonwealth” solution to the global Chevrolet creative account.

GM spent $4.7bn on advertising last year, and the majority of that was channelled through Chevy, a brand accounting for 70% of GM’s US sales. So, all eyes will be on what Ewanick, after much agonising, has done with one of the world’s largest creative accounts.

Which is, exactly? The easy bit is that he has fired most of the 70 agencies that were, somehow, somewhere, working on the account – superfluously bloating management and production costs.

More controversially, Ewanick has placed the two winning agencies, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and McCann Erickson, in a joint venture dubbed Commonwealth. It will be based in Detroit, home of GM, but have 3 other creative hubs dotted across the globe at Milan, Mumbai and Sao Paolo. And the controversial bit is that the two agencies – Goodby, which holds the Chevy business in the USA, and McCann, which is strong in Latin America, Mexico, China and Canada – are owned by rival ad holding companies, Omnicom and Interpublic Group respectively. Omnicom and IPG are 50/50 owners of Commonwealth, we are told, but profits will be allocated “geographically”.

That in itself may be cause for friction. But just as interesting is who and what will be running Commonwealth day to day. It is to be led by an eight-strong “global advisory board”, overseeing creative initiatives and strategy, which consists principally of Jeff Goodby, the Goodby Silverstein & Partners founder, who will be creative chairman, Washington Olivetto, McCann Worldgroup Latin America chairman and chief creative officer, Linus Karlsson, the McCann New York and London chairman, and chief creative officer and Prasoon Joshi, the chairman of McCann Worldgroup India. A hat-tip to Goodby’s creative eminence, but note McCann’s dominance on the board.

Now, before muttering “sacks” and “cats”, let’s all take a deep breath and peer long and carefully into the glass half-full. There certainly is a rational case for Commonwealth, or something very like it. And part of it is saving an estimated $2bn in production and management costs over 5 years.

What’s more, we can expect some unwonted co-operative zeal from the two rival agencies. Both will be hugely relieved they have landed the business.

Goodby started as early favourite, not least because it was hand-picked for the US business by Ewanick himself. But  the work has disappointed. And, despite the pleasing publicity surrounding the Ford-knocking Silverado spots at this year’s Super Bowl, there have been gnawing doubts at the Goodby office about the agency’s ability to retain the account.

McCann, on the other hand, desperately needed a coup of any kind to stabilise its faltering performance. True, this is not the outright win that leaves it the undisputed global agency of record earlier rumoured. But it’s a fairly decent outcome, which consolidates McCann’s already strong position in high-growth emerging markets.

But once the novelty has worn off, what then? Will the creative dream-team pull together to make Chevrolet’s global message more consistent, or will the nightmare of agency politics take over? It’s anyone guess. For that very reason Ewanick should be taken at his word in describing Commonwealth as “historic”. We’ll find out soon enough how deep Chevy really runs.


Wren bags $22m in Omnicom stock sale. Roth to sell $4m IPG shares

March 20, 2012

Omnicom president and CEO John Wren has just sold a lot of shares in his own company. Interpublic Group chairman and CEO Michael Roth is about to do the same.

What is it that they know, and we don’t?

First, some background. Wren sold 258,110 Omnicom shares, worth $12, 549,308 on March 9, according to an SEC filing – leaving him with a total of 1,127,721 shares. The sale represents about 19% of his total holding. In fact, that’s not the full picture, because he also exercised some stock options. The full amount realised appears to be nearer $22m.

Roth’s transaction, which will be executed on April 2, is slightly more modest. He’s selling a mere 324,341 shares which, at today’s prices, would net him about $3.85m.

It’s important to note that director share sales (or “insider trading” as it’s misleadingly called in the USA) are not always what they appear to be. CEOs of publicly listed companies have to act with extreme care when liquidating any of their company portfolio, partly to achieve tax efficiency, and partly to avoid spooking the stock exchange (not to mention shareholders) by seeming to offload too many shares at once.

Roth, for example, normally rebalances his IPG holding every year by buying as well as selling stock. That said, I do not see any evidence of him purchasing stock in 2012 – thus far. Indeed, he currently appears to hold the minimum IPG portfolio permitted to him under company rules. That is, shares valued at five times his basic salary.

So, it would appear he is cutting down at a time when IPG’s share price is nearing a high of about $12. Last September, it was in an all-time pit of $7.93, but IPG has been buoyed by a good trading performance of late.

With Wren, the telegraphy seems much clearer. He’s selling a lot of his stake in the company at one time, no two ways about it. Nor has he bought any Omnicom shares over the last year. In fact, no one insider has. Well, almost no one: a mere 500 shares for a total of $20,583 have been acquired.

If I were a securities house analyst, I might cynically conclude we have a “sell” signal here. Though I hope I am wrong about that.


Nick Brien heads for McCann exit. But who would wish to step into his shoes?

March 16, 2012

Word reaches me that Nick Brien, chief executive officer of Interpublic Group’s troubled leviathan McCann Worldgroup, will be stepping down very shortly. Possibly within a few weeks.

The size of Brien’s no doubt handsome severance package is likely to remain a mystery, the reason for his departure less so.

McCann has, in recent years, been a slow-motion accident gradually picking up speed. The traditional banker of Interpublic, accounting for 30% of group revenue (according to the Wall Street Journal), it was once a licence to print money on account of 5 foundation global clients. These were: Unilever, Exxon Mobil, Nestlé, L’Oréal and General Motors. More recently it has come to rely upon Microsoft as well. Here’s the recent tally:

Unilever (mostly Walls) has long gone, and the souring of the relationship can hardly be blamed upon Brien (even though the last bit of media did leave in 2011). Less excusably, his 2-year tenure has coincided with serious difficulties afflicting the other five.

Nestlé? McCann lost the crown-jewels global Nescafé creative account (worth about $25m income annually) to Publicis Groupe. McCann had handled the vast majority of the business for several decades.

Exxon? Lost the $200m creative account (which went back to 1912) to BBDO after a year-long review completed late last year. Universal McCann, MRM and Momentum have, however, managed to cling on to media.

General Motors? McCann lost out in the recent contest for GM’s $3bn global media business (of which Universal McCann had a substantial chunk), and is still on tenterhooks over whether it has won, lost or drawn in a creative review of the worldwide Chevrolet business, which accounts for the bulk of GM adspend.

Did I mention the Microsoft débâcle? About a year ago, UM and Mediabrands lost more than half Microsoft’s global media business after a review which saw the $615m US business pass to Publicis’ Starcom MediaVest.

And so to L’Oréal – perhaps the single most important McCann relationship, accounting (I’m told) for about 20% of its operating profit. Brien made a fundamental wrong turn last year when he sought to shoehorn Maybelline into a standalone shop, Beauty Village, which was also to house L’Oréal’s main brands. Characteristically (for a former media man), he had spotted the cost benefits of ruthlessly streamlining the business. Equally characteristically, his critics would say, he showed almost zero client empathy in setting about the task. When L’Oréal’s ‘C Suite’ finally tumbled to what he was doing, they were apoplectic and nixed the whole project.

Worse, it would appear, is on the way for McCann. L’Oréal now seems poised to take a considerable amount of its creative work in house. From what I hear, it will drop one of its two global agencies. And given that Publicis is the Paris-based home team, currently rejoices in a better brand name and – in Digitas – a superior digital operation, who do you think that unlucky agency might be? Driving L’Oréal’s thinking, sources say, are potential cost savings of $50m a year.

An indication of the way the wind is blowing may be detected in the recent defection of McCann’s L’Oréal worldwide account director Aude Gandon, who joined Publicis Worldwide last month. Gandon was a Brien protegé. She was formerly managing director of Leo Burnett’s beauty, fashion and luxury division, Atelier-lb, and was brought into McCann shortly after Brien got the top job.

Hers is not the only departure. Note that Garry Neel, the GM brand leader at McCann is quitting (although he will stay on as a consultant). As is Matt Freeman, who was hired as chief global chief innovation officer and vice-chairman less than a year ago. Only last week, Cathy Saidiner, president of McCann LA since 2008 – and a key Nestlé contact – also quit, according to an AdWeek report which also carried a denial that Brien is about to step down.

Against all these losses, McCann under Brien has yet to nail a significant new business win. Sense a pattern, anyone?

Equally interesting, while on the subject of Brien’s imminent departure, is who might replace him. Who, now that Brett Gosper has quit, has sufficient stature within McCann? And if an external candidate, which first-rate suits would be prepared to risk their reputation in taking on such a vertiginous challenge? The ideal candidate might well be Andrew Robertson, BBDO Worldwide CEO (who has not so far landed that top Omnicom job he was rumoured to be angling for). But why would he want to go to McCann? Surely not for the money.

UPDATE 19/3/12: Another top level casualty: this time Tom Gruhler, global managing partner at McCann Worldgroup, who is heading off to Microsoft as vice-president of phone marketing. Gruhler, who joined McCann in 2003, oversaw a specialist technology and telecoms unit the agency was developing. Previously, he was point man on the Verizon account, but much of that defected to agency-of-the-moment McGarryBowen in 2010. There’s now an inescapable whiff of the Führer Bunker, April 1945, in the air.


Record WPP financial results fuel confidence in sustainable recovery

March 1, 2012

Chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell was in feisty form as he reported the best set of financial performance figures in years at the world’s largest marketing services company by revenue.

The WPP growth engine is, apparently, firing on all six cylinders: billings, revenue, earnings per share, pre-tax profit, organic growth (or like-for-like as it is often known) and operating margins all showed evidence of substantial improvement. Perhaps the key highlights were pre-tax profit, up 19%, at over £1bn for the first time; and strong evidence of Quarter 4 growth, indicating the spurt is not some first-half fluke that will fade in the current year.

Doubtless WPP euphoria will subside once media focus moves on to the inevitable corollary of record financial performance – an equally record performance bonus handed to its chief executive. But, hey, that’s for then.

For now WPP’s results form a welcome bookend to a series of exceptionally good annual numbers from all the global marketing services giants – Interpublic’s particularly so – suggesting an ad recovery is on the way.

But is it sustainable? Sorrell  – revered as something of an economic sage these days – has indicated that WPP January figures are strong – even in the UK, on which he has been bearish for some time. And he has wheeled out his favourite prop on these occasions, the so-called Quadrennial Effect, to underline his contention that growth will be sustained throughout the year. Put into simple English, that means macro-events which occur every four years – such as the Olympics, the UEFA football championship and the US presidential elections – will stimulate global growth by at least 1%.

Nor was he pessimistic about what, to most of us, might seem a blot on the economic landscape. A number of the world’s biggest brand owners, among them Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have recently announced cuts to their workforce. Sorrell chooses to take comfort from the fact that all of these companies have guaranteed existing or even increased levels of marketing expenditure.

The Sage of Farm Street is less optimistic about 2013, though – foreseeing gridlock on Capitol Hill, with a re-elected Obama beleaguered by hostile Republicans in Congress. We’ll see.


Greg Delaney makes it a hat trick with DLKW Lowe deal

June 28, 2010

I think Greg Delaney deserves some sort of medal, quite possibly an Olympic one. Because he has just proved – beyond all doubt – that he is one of the smartest deal-makers in adland.

Success in building advertising agencies, as with comedy, is about timing. It’s all about knowing when to buy and when, at the top of your game, to sell. The slightly-built chairman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren has demonstrated this quality not once, not twice, but three times in his business career.

First, he was instrumental in the buyout of DLWK (then Delaney Fletcher Bozell) from Bozell Worldwide in 2000, then the acquisition of his agency by marketing services group Creston plc in 2005 for an astonishing £38m. Lastly, post earn-out, he has just engineered a management buy-in at Lowe London which values DLKW at £28m. The cash, stumped up by Lowe’s parent Interpublic, goes into Creston’s coffers. But the fact the new agency is to be known as DLKW Lowe rather than Lowe DLKW, tells you almost everything you need to know about the deal. This is a talented management team (consisting, among others, of joint ceos Tom Knox and Richard Warren) propping up a once-great agency name; tapping into a strong international network; and rewarding themselves, yet again, with a ride on the gravy train (this time with minority stakes in the new agency).

DLKW has never been regarded as one of the most creative agencies, but it has proved one of the best managed. Which is all the more commendable considering its start in life was almost an accident. Most agency breakaways are entirely fueled by their founders’ egos. DLKW’s foundation, by contrast, had more to do with a fortuitous set of circumstances. Bozell, its then network, was being merged and purged with group parent True North’s other arm, FCB. However, the London team would have none of a proposed merger with FCB’s Banks Hoggins O’Shea and, by an astonishing oversight, were allowed to go their own way.

Interpublic shortly afterwards acquired True North; and, as a consequence, a strategic stake in the breakaway agency, which it held on to until Creston bought DLKW lock stock and barrel in 2005. There was irony here. In the shorter term, DLKW proved a thorn in the side to Interpublic by hijacking most of wholly-owned Lowe’s UK General Motors business. In the longer term, however, the stake created a durable rapport and helped open doors when Lowe’s current network chief, Michael Wall, pitched up at Creston with an open cheque book earlier this year (A Wall of money).

Lowe needed to do a deal with someone, no doubt about it. It was that or close down the London office. Rapier and Dye Holloway Murray were also in the frame, but DLKW seems to have been the target, first and foremost. It’s a known, respected quantity and the brands fit.

But, one niggling doubt remains. If DLKW is so all-fired magnificent, why has Creston let it go for £10m less than it paid for it five years ago? At the time of acquisition, DLKW accounted for about half of Creston’s revenues, and even now the figure is roughly a quarter (£19.2m of £80.3m, in the year to March 31). In other words, the agency was, and remains, a major strategic asset.

Creston’s argument is that the money is better deployed elsewhere, in faster-growing assets such as digital. It’s certainly true that advertising is a less dynamic element of the group’s portfolio than, say, healthcare. Indeed, DLKW’s profitability appears to be flat-lining. According to “bottom line” wizard Bob Willott, DLKW group made a post-tax profit of only £1.9m in the last financial year – almost the same figure as that achieved when the agency and its small subsidiaries were first acquired. Above all, however, it seems to have been the flash of cash that did the trick. The £28m payable to Creston on completion is spookily adjacent to its debt pile of £25m. Shareholders were not slow to swallow the implications: Creston’s share price shot up.

Withering on the vine or not, DLKW certainly looks better placed to kick-start itself back into life as part of Interpublic than in the eccentric marketing services portfolio that is Creston. In Lowe, the boys have got themselves a bigger sand-pit to play in. Let’s see what they do with it.


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