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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Publicis Groupe and Omnicom disclose $35bn merger

July 27, 2013

Maurice LevyAs merger rumours go, they didn’t come much better. Omnipub. Or more probably Publicom. But let’s come back to that later.

The idea that the world’s number two marketing services group, Omnicom, is about to combine with the number three, Publicis Groupe, and topple WPP from its premier spot (by market capitalisation) eventually proved too much for Bloomberg News. Yesterday, after the New York Stock Exchange had closed, it went ahead and published on the basis of a single source, probably but not certainly a disaffected investment banker.

Hats off to Bloomberg: it got it right. The new entity is to be called Publicis Omnicom Groupe. Fuller details will be announced in Paris tomorrow. But Omnicom chief executive John Wren and Publicis CEO are expected to be joint CEOs of the combined companies. At least, for the time being…

Commentators have rightly fastened upon the many impediments to Wren and Lévy pulling off this $35bn marriage in advertising heaven. They range from anti-trust legislation, to rampant nationalism (Publicis is a French chauvinistic icon, and seen as a bulwark against Le Defi Americain), to apparently unbridgeable divergence in the two companies’ strategies, not to mention the little matter of crippling client conflict.

So that’s it then? It can’t possibly work? Well, no. I can’t speak for the thicket of legal obstacles likely to be thrown in the way of the touted merger, but most of the other objections can be turned on their head, sometimes to advantage.

Let’s take strategy as an example. Lévy is relatively weak in the USA, but has emphasised emerging markets and put his money where his mouth is – sometimes too much of it – with expensive digital acquisitions such as Digitas, Razorfish, Rosetta, Big Fuel and LBi. Wren is archetypally American – over 50% of his business comes from the States; he has shied away from digital acquisitions, which he regards as over-priced, and some (including shareholders) would argue that his conservatism, or complacency, has cost Omnicom dear in the Far East. So different strategies, yes; but incompatible ones, no.

Nor is client conflict the neurotic impediment to mergers in the advertising business it once was. Some clients – McDonald’s, Mars and Procter & Gamble for instance – are held in common by the two groups. The real deal-breaker – if there is one – is likely to be Coca-Cola (PG) and PepsiCo (Omnicom). Then again, maybe Wren knows something about the state of the PepsiCo business we don’t.

Next, might a merger not help to address some chronic succession problems in both organisations? Readers of this news site will be very familiar with those at Publicis. Jean-Yves Naouri, once 71-year-old Lévy’s favoured protégé, seems to have fallen by the wayside. While Arthur Sadoun – the capable, ambitious managing director of the elite Publicis Worldwide network – was probably too young and too little known outside France to assume the global mantle. An added piece in this jigsaw is Elisabeth Badinter, the daughter of Publicis founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, who has been a member of PG’s supervisory board since 1987 and its chairman since 1996.

Badinter will, according to the Wall Street Journal, co-chair the new Publicis/Omnicom entity with Bruce Crawford. But she is expected to retire at the end of 2015. Which would be a convenient moment for Lévy to metamorphose into an emeritus role. It might also be a convenient moment for Badinter to bow out and cash in an enormous cheque. She is a 9.1% share holder in Publicis Groupe.

John WrenTurning to Omnicom, the problems of its senior management are less well ventilated. But two things are certain: its directors are not getting any younger and there hasn’t been much mobility lately. The average age of the board is over 70 (my thanks to Bob Willott for this pop-up statistic), making 61-year-old Wren look a comparative spring-chicken. Omnicom remains a well-run company, but there is an unmistakable air of geriatric stasis hanging over it. It has lost some big, perennial, brands in the recent past: Gillette and Chevrolet. Another signature account – Anheuser-Busch – has been cut to ribbons by the cost-conscious Boys from Brazil (InBev). By contrast Publicis – for all its chief’s distinguished grey hair – is viewed as dynamic; a perception reflected not only in PG’s recent stellar results but its consistently superior stock market rating.

A “nil premium” merger (which is what Bloomberg has suggested this is) implies a combination of equals. In reality, although Omnicom is the larger company, Publicis will end up in the driving seat: we’re talking Publicom rather than OmniPub. The signs are already there: in the name, Publicis leading; and in the venue for the announcement tomorrow, Paris.

The important detail to look out for will be who becomes chief financial officer. My money is on Jean-Michel Etienne rather than Randy Weisenburger. It’s not only the French who have to be appeased, it’s also the investment community.

Bloomberg seeded one of the most galvanising “silly season” rumours in years. The only thing is, it turned out to be true.


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