Is Publicis preparing a bid for Interpublic?

January 22, 2010

Can it be true? I hear that Publicis Groupe is looking at an audacious all-shares takeover bid for Interpublic.

Publicis is nominally fourth in the marketing services league, behind Interpublic, when ranked by global revenues. However, the gap has been closing steadily in the last year and they are now almost neck and neck. Study their market performance and you would hardly believe both have entered the same recession. Where Publicis, judging from its share price, has outperformed, IPG has significantly underperformed. The market capitalisation of the two companies eloquently tells the story. IPG is now valued at about $3.4bn whereas Publicis is worth $8.26bn, making it nearly two and half times bigger. We might add that, over the past year, Publicis’ position has been strengthened by the dollar/euro exchange rate moving in its favour (excepting bumps in the last few of days, of course).

But why would Publicis entertain such a thing, given all the turmoil it could cause? Imagine the account conflicts: the cars, the cosmetics, healthcare and technology accounts that would have to be sorted out…

A few ideas come to mind. First, IPG is temptingly vulnerable, whoever decides to have a tilt at it; and Publicis is better equipped than most. Despite Levy’s surface optimism about recovery, he knows as well as any other group chief that significant organic growth in the near future is a will-o’-the-wisp. With shareholders to appease, and assets cheap, another round of industry consolidation begins to look attractive. Never mind whether the acquisition is really earnings positive – or dilutive. With an astutely managed ‘merger’ no one can be certain for years to come. A big acquisition buys time and the benefit of the doubt (as Kraft well knows).

Second, Publicis has some unresolved business with Dentsu, the Japanese agency group with a 15% stake in the group. It has not been a happy arrangement. I noted, for example, tension between the two partners over the Razorfish acquisition last year. Acquiring IPG might be a way of diluting Dentsu’s influence by rebalancing Publicis’ portfolio. The Dentsu deal, in any case, comes to a close in 2012: Dentsu may want its money back. Dentsu and Publicis-owned Saatchi & Saatchi share a worldwide interest in the Toyota car account. Could there be a bargain to be struck there, for example?

Lastly, never underestimate the human factor. Publicis Groupe chief Maurice Levy is nearing the end of his long and successful tenure. He may wish to bow out on a high note. And this would certainly be a ‘C’ to crack the chandelier.

According to those in the know, the detail of any such bid would be managed by Isabelle Simon, senior vice president at the French global marketing services conglomerate. More important than the title is the fact that she is charged with acquisitions policy at Publicis. Simon has had a high-flying career as lawyer and financial whizz-kid, in both the United States and Europe. Her last job was as an executive director at Goldman Sachs, where she specialised in M&A and capital market transactions. She was poached by Levy last February. The telephone-number salary attached to her suggests he wasn’t thinking of a couple of cheap infill acquisitions.


Publicis and Dentsu cut up nasty over Razorfish acquisition

July 29, 2009

RazorfishWord reaches me that Razorfish, the digital interactive-cum-media placement agency being disposed of by Microsoft, is causing controversy as the bidding enters the second and final round.

Microsoft originally bought Razorfish as part of its $6bn acquisition of aQuantive in 2007, but clearly feels an agency of this size conflicts too much with its ad sales operation. The idea is to offload it, via Morgan Stanley, onto one of the big agency groups for well over $400m, plus  a commercial deal involving Microsoft proprietary advertising technology and a commitment to buy ad space across Microsoft web properties such as Bing. Conditional selling, you might say.

Interpublic and Omnicom have fallen by the wayside, which leaves WPP, Publicis Groupe and Dentsu in contention.

Publicis emerged as an early favourite, despite the fact that its platform technology (via Double Click) is more closely aligned to Google than Microsoft’s Atlas. So it was somewhat miffed to discover that its ally Dentsu – which holds a strategic stake in Publicis – has comprehensively outbid it.

But the $700m rumoured to be on the table may not be the knockout bid it appears. The trouble is Dentsu doesn’t have the US presence to do an appealing commercial deal. Which is where, in other circumstances, its ally might have come in…

Experts think that $700m is over the top in current market conditions, a symptom of Dentsu’s desperation to catch up. Maybe Microsoft should take the money and forget the side-deal. But then again, that side-deal has become more important now Microsoft is acquiring Yahoo!’s search business.


No quarter for ad giants

July 29, 2009

GM bankruptAnother day, another dollar less. Quarterly results from the big agency groups paint a revealing picture of financial pain, and nowhere more poignantly than in the case of the stricken automobile sector.

Publicis Groupe recently disclosed that its exposure to bankrupt General Motors was ‘only’ $12.8m (about £8m) rather than the £78m (£47m) originally projected. That did little to soften the blow when the half-way figures came out a few days later: net income (pre-tax profit) down 13%, and nasty deterioration in organic growth in the last quarter. The only bright spot was a 6% increase in digital revenues over the six months. That, and the assurance of group chief executive Maurice Levy that things can only get better – from September onwards. Tell that to the 1,800 people (4% of the group) he has had to ‘let go’ this year.

Still, Publicis did a lot better than Interpublic Group, home of Lowe and McCann Erickson (one of whose biggest clients is GM). IPG has actually managed to achieve a loss of $53m (£32m) over the six months. So the reduction of its latest quarterly net income by 76% must be accounted something of a triumph by comparison with first quarter performance. Quite a lot of its losses are attributable to the severance costs of the 4,100 people it has made redundant – 9% of its workforce.

Omnicom (BBDO, TBWA, DDB etc), too, posted pretty dismal figures, slightly more encouraging than IPG’s but not, on most criteria, as buoyant as Publicis’. It is laying off 3,500 of its staff, nearly 5%. Profits for the last quarter were 24% down, about the same as the previous quarter. Which was probably pretty good really, considering Omnicom’s $58m exposure to bankrupt Chrysler. On this subject, however, chairman and ceo John Wren was understandably vague – despite analysts’ obvious interest in the subject. It was the second biggest search term employed in Omnicom’s earnings call. There are, as I have pointed out before, some unresolved mysteries about Chrysler and Omnicom.

As for WPP, we will not be seeing its half-year results until the end of August. Things are not looking too clever, though. True, WPP is the odd one out so far as the car industry is concerned. Not only has Ford not made its way to the bankruptcy court, it has even managed a small operating profit this quarter. So no write-downs; but that’s slim cause for comfort, as ad spend is likely to be depressed for some time to come. Redundancies give us a fuller picture. In a trading statement released early in June, WPP admitted to making 4,300 employees redundant – about 4% – since the beginning of the calendar year. The final figure is expected to be about 7,200.

Both Publicis’ Levy and Omnicom’s Wren seem to be spinning the idea that we are at, or near, the nadir. Don’t believe everything you hear, though. Next  quarter’s earnings may look better than they really are simply because the dive they took in Q3 last year will flatter the percentage increase. That, at least, is the view of WPP ceo Sir Martin Sorrell.


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