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Max, Dan, Jerry – 2012’s out-performers

December 14, 2012

League tables of achievement are as commonplace as turkeys right now. Why burden you with another one? Well, I’ve been asked to – by the good folk at More About Advertising. So:

Ad of the Year. Yes, I liked BBH’s “The 3 Little Pigs” and Creative Artist Agency’s Cannes Chipotle winner. Also, Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi’s work for – of all improbable B2C clients – air-conditioning specialist BGH. Of which this, directed by Juan Cabral, is the latest instance:

As MAA’s Stephen Foster puts it – “bleakly comic”.

My favourite, though, was “Follow the Frog”, a quirky satire of the desk-bound yuppie eco-warrior fantasising about making the World A Better Place. Writer, director, copywriter, art director is Max Joseph – clearly a bit of an Orson Welles in the making. The commercial was produced by Wander Films, a creative boutique in Los Angeles. The moral? You don’t need to go to the ends of the earth to save the rainforest. Just Follow the Frog by buying kitemark-certified Rainforest Alliance products. They’ll do all the ethical heavy-lifting for you: sustain the forests, uphold socially equitable farming methods, and guarantee that what you buy is economically viable:

It’s long – but isn’t nearly everything these days? The measure of the made-for-internet film is not its length, but how well it sustains our interest. On this criterion Follow the Frog succeeds very well. It’s got a good tale to tell, is directed with panache and enlivened by bold use of graphics. Oh, and it uses gentle humour to camouflage the piety of its evangelical message. Yes “Siri”, it get’s my vote.

Agency of the Year. I won’t beat about the bush: it’s got to be Wieden & Kennedy. International networks frequently produce isolated instances of brilliance (Del Campo being an example within the Saatchi organisation). Exceptional work, simultaneously executed on a number of fronts, is another matter. To take an investment analogy, W&K is a momentum stock outperforming in all its main markets. Whether that’s Clint fronting for Chrysler at the Super Bowl:

… London winning the £110m Tesco account – but also producing some of the most interesting creative work since “Grrr”:

Or Amsterdam’s slick spoof for the latest James Bond film, which neatly segues into its current Heineken campaign:

Person of the Year. Tempting to mention the name of Joel Ewanick, isn’t it? No one can be said to have made a bigger splash in the world of marketing over the past year. Arguably, however, the now-dismissed chief marketing officer of General Motors made headlines for all the wrong reasons. A change agent he certainly was, but were any of his changes for the good? And what sort of permanence will they have? We hacks miss him, but I suspect the wider marketing community will not.

Jerry BuhlmannInstead of anti-hero, therefore, I’ve plumped for a gritty go-getter: marketing services’ answer to Daniel Craig. Like Craig, he certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice as the archetypal smooth operator. But his coolness under fire cannot be doubted. Step forward Jerry Buhlmann, chief executive of Aegis Group plc. If there is one thing archetypal about Jerry, it’s that he’s a self-made media man. He started off in the “five to one” slot, in other words the lowest of the low in the full-service agency hierarchy, at Young & Rubicam in 1980. Nine years later, he was setting up his his own media-buying outfit BBJ – along with ultimately less successful Nick Brien and the downright obscure Colin Jelfs. BBJ – nowadays Vizeum – though successful (it handled for example the BMW account) was originally a “second-string” shop for conflicted WCRS media. Buhlmann’s career really took off when WCRS’s Peter Scott had the inspired idea of acquiring Carat – Europe’s largest media buyer – and floating off the combined operation as a separate stock market entity, rechristened Aegis. Buhlmann and his company were soon swallowed up by the independent media specialist, which offered him much wider career opportunities.

But was he a man capable of capitalising on them? While no one has ever doubted Buhlmann’s single-minded ambition to succeed, a lot have wondered whether he had the competence to do so. Yes, he had a mind like a calculator and razor-sharp commercial acumen, but where, oh where, were those human skills no less essential for making it to the top of the corporate pile? There was much mirth in the senior reaches of the media industry when Buhlmann got his first big break as head of Aegis Media EMEA in 2003. “It’s like William Hague trying to emulate Margaret Thatcher” was a typical response to his promotion. Then, as later, Buhlmann’s critics completely underestimated his ability to learn on the job. When he became group chief executive in 2010, the reception was scarcely less friendly. The master of ‘focus’ and ‘detail’ was incapable of taking the broader view vital to successfully running a publicly-quoted company, it was said. And then there was Jerry’s far-from-diplomatic demeanour: how long before he rubbed the City up the wrong way and had to be dispensed with?

It wasn’t as if Aegis was an easy company to run, either. As a (near) pure-bred media specialist, it was susceptible to squalls in the media every time the inevitable financial scandal broke. Inevitable, because media buying and peculation are bedfellows and peculation distorts financial performance – meaning in Aegis’ case it had to resort to highly public mea culpas every now and then. Other major media outfits, by contrast, have been able to rely on defence in depth from the much bigger marketing services organisations to which they belong.

Not only that, Aegis’s card was marked as a public company. For years, it laboured under the strain of being a takeover or break-up target. The strain became nightmarish when Vincent Bolloré, the shareholder from hell, took a strategic stake in Aegis and began engineering a series of boardroom coups.

Some of the credit for Aegis’ eventual soft-landing – a 50%-premium, £3.2bn cash deal with Dentsu, sealed last June  – must go to Aegis chairman John Napier. But that still leaves a lot owing to Buhlmann himself. Not only did he keep all the plates spinning in difficult circumstances, he also demonstrated a strategic clarity which eluded his predecessors. He ruthlessly pruned the company of its lower-margin research operation (by disposing of Synovate to Ipsos), but at the same time bolstered its pure-play media-buying profile with the geographical add-on of Mitchell Communications.

Not a bad result, all in all, for the man once dubbed the king of the second-string.

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£3bn Aegis deal will test Dentsu’s mettle

July 13, 2012

Cynics might say that £3.2bn – cash – is an awful lot to pay for digital competence and a superior market rating. And they have a point. Would Dentsu ever have planned such an audacious and costly coup as the acquisition of Aegis Group had the Japanese advertising group earlier succeeded in its seemingly knock-out offers for Razorfish and, later, AKQA? It’s subjunctive history: we’ll never know.

Aegis chief executive Jerry Buhlmann and Dentsu president Tadashi Ishii: Firm friends?

The cynics are, in any case, substantially unfair. There’s much more to the Aegis acquisition than digital. This is arguably the transformative deal of the decade. It’s as if there has been a tectonic plate shift in marketing services, revealing a series of minor preceding tremors as clearly apparent elements in a wider pattern.

These minor tremors include the foundation of a much stronger, and more independent, operating unit in the US – Dentsu North America – under the direction of Tim Andree; Andree’s earlier acquisition of some of America’s sharpest shops, McGarryBowen, Attik, and 360i; the harnessing of McGarryBowen to Dentsu’s embryonic European network, led by former WPP executive Jim Kelly; and, not least, Dentsu’ decision to pull out of its unsuccessful strategic alliance with Publicis Groupe, cashing £535m in the process.

Andree, now gone global as senior vice-president at Dentsu and no doubt a strategic architect of the acquisition, has admitted that the £535m was “helpful in this deal” – coded language referring to the cash pile making it possible at this time. But something of the sort has needed to happen for a long time if Dentsu were not to be stranded in its idiosyncratic role as a one-country wonder, with 80% of global earnings still accounted for by overwhelming dominance in the Japanese market.

There are lessons in failure, and the Japanese management of Dentsu finally seem to have learned them. Neither strategic alliances, meaning stakes of about 20% in rival but complementary marketing services companies, nor the occasional one-off acquisition, such as Collett Dickenson Pearce all those years ago, suffice  for players in a global market. They needed to delegate more, and yet be more masterful in their acquisition strategy.

The delegation came in the realisation that people like Andree, John McGarry and Kelly would know more about how Western advertising culture actually functioned than Tokyo Central would ever know.

The more masterful acquisition strategy came from the realisation that opportunities for global expansion were rapidly narrowing, and if they wanted a suitable counterweight elsewhere in the world, they would have to put aside an institutional aversion to big takeovers and get the cheque-book out.

That’s why £3.2bn to buy the Aegis Group – 18 times prospective earnings compared with a market average of about 13 – is not too much to pay for this deal. It gives Dentsu indispensable weight as a global player: at $7bn revenues combined, close competition with the Interpublic Group as the number 5 player. As a media/digital operator, it moves into the third slot, behind GroupM (WPP) and Vivaki Media (PG). And geographically, it reduces its dependence on Japan to 60%.

Over at Aegis, it’s difficult to guess whose smile is broader: that of Vincent Bolloré, 26% shareholder; Harold Mitchell, who doubles his invested capital from the sale of his business two years ago with a £112m takeaway; or Aegis chairman John Napier. Napier has had to perform a very difficult tightrope trick in the City with a monkey on his back. The monkey is Bolloré.

On the one hand, Aegis has performed extremely well in recent years, with organic growth rates defying all its bigger rivals. A cleaning-up operation, which brought Mitchell’s Australian media buying services in and off-loaded the under-performing Synovate market research business on Ipsos, improved them still further.

On the other, there was always an air of impermanence about a company as small and narrowly defined as Aegis being on the public markets. Chief executive Jerry Buhlmann knew it, Mitchell – judging from his share investment strategy –  knew it, Napier knew it and – most importantly – Vincent Bolloré knew it. Which is why he built up a stake in the first place. From the angle of Aegis’ corporate independence it is difficult to know which was worse: Bolloré Mark 1, the corporate raider stealthily engineering a boardroom takeover with a view to break-up; or Bolloré Mark 2, the disillusioned ‘strategic investor’ seeking to offload his game-changing stake at the first reasonable opportunity. Each was destabilising; neither the stuff of a good corporate narrative to wow other investors. Bolloré is now laughing all the way to his bank – £725m in pocket, representing a 50% premium on his investment. Quite what this means for the future of Havas, trailing with only $2.3bn global revenues, is of course an interesting  – but quite separate – question.

The nature of the Aegis deal – cash, and a 50% premium to the share price – makes it exceedingly unlikely that Dentsu will face any challengers for its prize. What matters now is whether it will make the deal work. The enlarged Dentsu can boast that 37% of its revenues are derived from the cutting edge, digital – a greater share than any other global marketing services group. Buhlmann has agreed to stay on until at least the end of next year, which should help the glue to set. But what then? Aegis, at nearly 40% the size of its new parent company, is by a wide margin the biggest acquisition that Dentsu is ever likely to make. That’s quite a cultural challenge.


Another scandal at Aegis leaves Jerry Buhlmann looking like Mole Whacker

November 4, 2011

It’s lucky for Aegis Group – as my old chum Stephen Foster points out – that its financial performance continues to delight shareholders. Only the other day we had Quarter 3 numbers that revealed an astonishing 11% organic growth rate. And, a little earlier, Aegis managed with considerable aplomb to unload its margin-sapping research business Synovate on Ipsos. All of which reflects very favourably on CEO Jerry Buhlmann’s grasp of the Big Picture.

If I were him, though, I’d be a little worried about some of the Detail that keeps emerging. Granted media buying companies, with their inherent penchant for surcommission (backhanders), are more prone to financial shenanigans than other arms of the marketing services business; but let’s face it, Aegis seems more unfortunate than most. Maybe it’s simply that rivals are better at covering their tracks. Whatever, Buhlmann is beginning to look a bit of a Mole Whacker.

First we had the Ruzicka scandal, which resulted in the German head of Aegis going to jail for a number of years. Then the Rumasa affair, as a consequence of which the company had to write off over £25m it had failed to collect in time (which was rather careless, to say the least). Now comes news that 2 senior executives who used to work in its US outdoor operation, Posterscope USA, have been indicted for fraud by the federal government.

Briefly, the facts are as follows. Todd Hansen, former US division president, and James Buckley, former finance director, have been charged with a $19.75m accounting fraud that stretched over 5 years (from 2004 to 2009) apparently without being detected. The two are accused of deliberately and artificially inflating company revenues in order to meet personal performance targets involving higher salaries, bonuses and stock options. In all, Hansen is alleged to have illegally salted away an extra $1.1m, and Buckley $650,000. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.

Presumably another Aegis financial restatement is on the way. Although its size is hardly likely to cause more than a ripple of embarrassment.

UPDATE: On this last point, apparently not. This is what Aegis has to say: “We can confirm that the events that led to this action will have no implications, financial or otherwise, for Aegis and its US business, as from an accounting perspective the matter was closed in 2009.” Aegis adds that it initiated the investigation into Hansen and Buckley.


Is Ipsos poised to buy Synovate from Aegis for €550m?

May 20, 2011

A rather interesting rumour is doing the rounds of the City. And it is this: Aegis, the media buying group, is about to divest its market research operation, Synovate, for a princely €550m (£481m). The lucky recipient? Paris-based global market research empire Ipsos.

While I have no idea whether any deal will go through, let’s say it’s not a surprise that the two parties should be talking. After all, we’ve been here before – or at least, somewhere very nearby.

Back in 2009, Aegis launched a formal strategic review to determine whether or not to sell Synovate. At the time, GfK was felt to be the most likely buyer. GfK – privately held but the world’s fourth largest MR group even so – was still smarting after it came off second best to WPP in the acrimonious £1.1bn bid battle for Taylor Nelson Sofres.

But it might just as well have been Ipsos, the fifth largest, that was doing the talking. Both MR groups are in the grip of the same strategic imperative: they need to grow bigger in the wake of the 2008 TNS deal, which catapulted WPP to near top position in the world market research league table, just behind Nielsen. The consolidation question is not a ‘whether’ but a ‘when’.

What’s more we know the Ipsos management team admires Synovate and believes it would be a good fit. Don’t just take my word for it. In late 2005 Ipsos’ chairman and chief executive Didier Truchot publicly described Synovate as “a very nice and dynamic organisation.”  Of course, he didn’t go so far as to say he would actually buy it. Then again, he didn’t say he wouldn’t. He merely pointed out that it was “a little too early” to entertain such a possibility.

Truchot was at it again in 2009, when announcing a robust set of results for the previous year: he danced around the idea of buying Synovate without actually saying it.

Perhaps five-and-a-half years has proved long enough to mature his plan.

All of which does little to shed light on Aegis’ motives for selling the business, if that is what it is doing.

Admittedly, the market research division is currently an underperformer. In the latest, Quarter 1, financial results, the Media division turned in an impressive 10.1% improvement in sales, well ahead of the 7% analysts had been expecting. Synovate, on the other hand, undershot, if only by a small amount.

Furthermore, divestment would provide more ammunition in the war-chest. Aegis chief executive Jerry Buhlmann has already embarked on a strategy of shoring up Aegis’ position as a pure-player global media buyer with the £200m acquisition of Mitchell Communications.

But there is a wild card in all of this. What of 27% Aegis stakeholder Vincent Bolloré? Despite his very public disavowals of any further interest in a takeover, Aegis would surely become more, not less, tempting as a target. After all, what Havas – of which he is president and the principal shareholder – most needs is a more effective media buying operation.

UPDATE 6/6/11: Evidently the rumour was true: Aegis has just confirmed it. What matters, now the veil of secrecy has been stripped from the talks, is whether Ipsos is allowed a clear run at the acquisition. Or will others, such as Publicis Groupe, barge in with better terms? Anyone interested in the financials (Ipsos is about twice the size of Synovate) might care to look at Bob Willott’s newsletter on the subject.


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