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Starcom CEO’s link with Tremor Video IPO raises conflict of interest issue

May 29, 2013

Laura DesmondYou can gauge the ebullience of equity markets these days from the number of obscure digital media companies with dodgy profit and loss accounts that are confidently seeking an IPO (or listing on the stock exchange as it is more commonly known). They’ve never had it so good… since 1999.

Right now video ad networks – companies that provide a digital video platform for the big marketing services groups serving their ads online –  are flavour of the month. The “space” is currently dominated by Google’s YouTube and Hulu (which you may also have heard of). But video industry experts expect YuMe and Adapt.tv (which you won’t have done, unless you’re in the biz) to declare their hand.

In fact one of them already has: Tremor Video, a big video ad network that has long been eyeing a public listing, announced its IPO a few days ago. It’s typical of the breed. Last year the company lost $16.4m on revenue of $105.2m, the previous year $21m on revenue of $90.3m. But hey, what’s a big red hole when margins are improving and losses decreasing? The stock market is not about today, it’s about tomorrow: and Tremor is selling a great tomorrow, about $86m-worth of it, it hopes, on the NYSE. Already Tremor runs ads on over 500 websites and mobile apps: that figure can be expected to increase exponentially with all the publicity attending a flotation.

So far, so dull. But don’t nod off, because things are about to become considerably more interesting. Tremor has lots of admirers in the business. One of them is Starcom MediaVest Group, owned by Publicis Groupe – which is nearly, but not quite, the world’s largest media buyer. So, a friend worth having you might say. In fact, SMG likes Tremor so much that its business accounts for nearly 20% of the video ad network’s revenue, so I’m told . What that says about PG’s in-house alternative Vivaki I’m not quite sure; maybe things aren’t working out there as well as they should be. But it’s one hell of a vote of confidence in Tremor.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. Except… my eye was caught by a further disturbing detail in the S-1 – a simple IPO pathfinder document filed with the SEC. One of Tremor’s principal directors is Laura Desmond. Not, by any chance that same Laura Desmond (pictured) who has been global CEO of SMG since 2008? I fear it may be the self-same. If so, she’s a very provident – and lucky – woman. Because a small fortune is coming her way very soon. Desmond (that’s Tremor Desmond) was only one of two Tremor board directors to get paid last year: she received a full grant of nearly $300,000 in share options, plus another $175,000-worth which can be vested in equal amounts every month over the next four years. Quite a tidy sum, you’ll agree. But that’s not the full measure of it. The options, I’m told, have been awarded in nominal 2012 terms – at about $1 per share. And should the IPO striking price be $10 per share? Imagine – $3m, or thereabouts.

Enough, certainly, to pay for that sailing trip round the world which the other Ms Desmond has been promising herself for some years.

UPDATE  4/7/2013: Tremor Video’s IPO got off to a rocky start last Thursday, and Laura Desmond may not collect quite so much as she hoped when passing “Go”. The flotation price was $10 per share (as predicted above), below hopeful initial forecasts of $11-13. However, the stock has since spiralled down to a tad under $8. Ms Desmond need feel little despondency, however. There is still a tidy package coming her way. By my calculations (based on the S1 012 Director compensation table), she has already vested over 35% of her 175,000 stock options. Meaning she can cash them in at any time. The rest she must accrue at the vesting rate of 1/48 a month until January 19th 2016. No doubt she would be wise to wait a while until crystallising her nest-egg. At $10 per share, the options would be worth – hardly rocket science – $1.75m. She may – we don’t know this for certain – have to pay the strike price of $3.34 per share, which would reduce her total haul to about $1.2m. Still enough for that ocean cruise, though….

One PPS. Some readers of my original article made the fair point that there is nothing untoward in SMG representing such a large proportion of Tremor’s revenue: it is, after all, one of the world’s largest media buyers. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Pretty precisely, SMG accounted for 17.8% of Tremor’s revenue in 2012. On the above rationale, you would expect GroupM, which is even bigger than SMG, to account for an equivalent portion of that revenue. It does not. As far as I can make out, it spent only $7.5m through Tremor during the same period, a tiny amount by comparison, and has only one major client with them, AT&T. Could be a coincidence, of course. On the other hand, investors should be on their guard that Tremor does not screw up its special relationship with SMG.

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It’s the Age of Google and Sorrell has no time – or money – for Twitter

April 29, 2013

Martin SorrellThe most interesting thing about WPP Group’s first quarter financial results were not the numbers, but its chief executive’s obiter dicta.

The numbers themselves were a curate’s egg. They beat the revenue forecast, bizarrely enough they delighted in Britain, but they disappointed in the United States. Which is just about the only part of the world economy currently showing signs of dynamism.

The obiter dicta, on the other hand, were curiously memorable. WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell used the occasion (well, near enough: he was actually speaking at the FT Digital Media Conference the previous day) to highlight a singular phenomenon. So far as his company is concerned (and it  is, after all, the number one spender of advertising money in the world), Google will soon become a bigger destination for his clients’ money than the biggest traditional media owner in his stable, News Corporation. Google is currently in receipt of $2bn of WPP’s quarterly spend; while NewsCorp gets about $2.5bn. But, given the Google figure represents a 25% increase year on year, it can only be a short time – Sorrell assures us – before the search giant moves into pole position.

I say “search giant”, but that of course is history. Sorrell’s underlying point is that Google – after some initial fumbling – has made the transition from a techie company, peopled by nerds, into a multi-media corporation with global reach. He calls it  “a five-legged stool”: there’s search (of course); display advertising; social media (google+); mobile (via Android and AdMob); and video through YouTube.

Note well where Sorrell places his chips, however. From an advertising point of view, the Age of Google (as he calls it) is primarily defined by video. YouTube has made big inroads into what traditionally would have been television viewing. He’s bullish about mobile, too: Android is now the most popular smartphone platform and in some developing markets, like China, it accounts for two-thirds of all mobile sales.

But social media: Oh dear, what an advertiser’s no-no! Yahoo, though generally lacklustre these days, garners about $400m of WPP spend. Facebook, infinitely more successful with its audience figures, receives only $270m. And Twitter a lot, lot less. What’s the logic? Well, Yahoo “gets” the commercial need for a five-legged strategy (indeed, TechCrunch speculates it is about to buy Dailymotion, a smaller competitor to YouTube). Whereas Facebook and Twitter do not. Facebook, Sorrell reckons, is important for brands – but in a negative sense – absence of criticism, which has little to do with any advertising content. Twitter, on the other hand, is simply a PR medium with almost no value to advertisers.

“It’s very effective word of mouth,” Sorrell told Harvard Business Review last month. “We did analyses of the Twitter feeds every day, and it’s very, very potent…I think because it’s limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.”

Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis, speaks during the Reuters Global Media Summit in ParisThat last may sound a little harsh. And is certainly not a universally accepted view among admen. Significantly, it is not shared by Sorrell’s deadliest rival, Maurice Lévy – chief executive of Publicis Groupe. Lévy has just announced a four-year pact with Twitter which will involve PG’s media planning and buying arm Starcom MediaVest Group committing up to $600m of client money to monetizing Twitter’s audience. Details, at this point, are sketchy.  It is clear, however, we are not just talking “pop-ups” here. Lévy makes specific reference to video links and “new formats” yet to be developed. He admits to there being “some risk” involved in the project, though whether this relates to his own reputation, clients’ money or both is not apparent.


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.


Carat in line to scoop $3bn General Motors global media account

December 7, 2011

A strong rumour suggests Carat has scooped the $3bn General Motors global media buying and planning account, which has been under review since August.

If true, this outcome amounts to a huge blow for Publicis Groupe, which services the majority of the account through its media specialist Starcom MediaVest, and – by the same token – a big fillip for Aegis, owner of Carat, the publicly listed company steered by Jerry Buhlmann.

The review, one of the biggest of its kind in the world, was instigated by GM marketing supremo Joel Ewanick as part of a slew of measures designed to tighten up the automobile giant’s worldwide marketing performance.

Before the review, GM used up to 20 media specialists. However, the bulk of the spend – two-thirds in fact – is committed to North America (the Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac marques), and much of that has passed through Starcom since 2005. Carat, which has been on the GM roster for a slightly shorter period but consolidated its hold during a 2010 review, handles the $500m European business (Opel and Vauxhall). Interpublic’s Universal McCann was responsible for much of the Latin American business.

Although the review was slated as “global”, it did not in fact include GM’s operations in nascent markets India and China. What it did include, according to the briefing notes, was “digital…, SEO and social media.”

If Ewanick has stuck to his word and included these in the consolidated Carat package, his decision will represent a double-whammy for Publicis. Back in the summer, PG boss Maurice Lévy sought to shore up his position in the increasingly important GM digital account by taking a 51% stake in Big Fuel, which holds the North American social media account. The acquisition was aligned under the Vivaki digital unit.

What we don’t know, of course, is how profitable the account will be for Aegis. In their desperation to win an account, media men often allow their competitive negotiating instinct to overcome more rational arithmetical considerations, and pare the margins down to the bone in an all-out attempt to win. That said, a win will do Aegis’ share price no harm at all. And, being on a roll, Buhlmann can expect more clients to put him and his team at the top of their shortlists.

 


Omnicom closes $100m Communispace deal

January 25, 2011

Silence reigns at Omnicom Towers on its mooted $100m deal with eCRM and insight company Communispace. Which is odd, for two reasons. First, it is the biggest deal engineered by the marketing services juggernaut since its ill-fated acquisitions of Agency.com and the somewhat more successful Organic in 2003. Second, and rather crucially – I hear the deal has gone through.

At all events, Communispace founder, president, chief executive and 10% shareholder Diane Hessan is packing her bags (now presumably heavy with loot).

The question is, what happens now? In an earlier post, I pointed out that $100m is a very steep price – yet, curiously, it does not seem to have been a stumbling block for that wily operator John Wren, Omnicom president and chief executive officer.

At the time I concentrated on the financials, and speculated that there must be something very special about this deal for Omnicom to hazard such an over-priced acquisition. That logic can be applied with equal relevance to Communispace’s clients. True, there are many the two parties have in common, plus a few that Omnicom would like to lay hands on. Yet it’s hard to ignore the conspicuous conflicts. Not just on the brand side, either. A slug of Communispace’s business flows from Omnicom’s rival agencies. Here’s an excerpt from AdAge that neatly summarises the conflict dilemma:

One reason why an Omnicom deal would make sense? Communispace lists as its clients several marketers that work with agencies under the holding company’s banner, including HP, PepsiCo, FedEx, Kraft and Campbell. But the Communispace client list also includes agencies at rival holding companies, like Havas’ EuroRSCG, Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group and Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Martin Agency. Were an Omnicom deal to happen, such alliances would likely have to dissolve, as would accounts with clients like Verizon, a major competitor to a big Omnicom client, AT&T.

I’d add WPP’s Ogilvy to the list of competitors as well (check out Jim Edwards at BNET on this one).

How does Wren plan to steer himself around that one? His last experience with a major acquisition, controversially managed through off-balance-sheet vehicle Seneca Investments, was not a happy one. Let’s hope history does not repeat itself.


Chinese corruption probe extends to Publicis media operation

September 14, 2010

In the global village, there’s nowhere you can hide – for long. A spreading corruption scandal in the little-known Chinese city of Chongqing (population about 35 million) will be causing the worldwide media bosses of Vivaki Exchange (Publicis Groupe) and OMG (Omnicom) some sleepless nights. It’s a cautionary tale about using Chinese brokers as intermediaries in media negotiation. All the main global networks, with the exception of WPP, use one – though not necessarily the same one. They broker the client rather than the media owner.

Last week, the chief executive and number two at Publicis’ buying point in China, Vivaki Exchange, left (or more likely were forced to leave) abruptly. Vivaki Exchange is an on- and offline amalgam of Publicis’ Solutions Digitas, Starcom MediaVest and Zenith Optimedia, formerly known (in China) as China Media Exchange (CMX). The reason for the two executives’ departure?  Warren Hui (left) and Ye Pengtao had had dealings with a media broker called Chongqing Huayu, which operates in China’s so-called South Western markets (Yunan and Sichuan as well as Chongqing itself). Chongqing Huayu is owned by a certain Zheng Zhixiang, recently arrested by the police in connection with the Chongqing Hilton prostitution scandal (highlighted here in the Daily Telegraph). The allegation is that he had been using the media broker to launder money from the prostitution racket. If convicted, Zheng will probably face the death penalty.

According to well placed sources, the broker Huayu (unusually in China, I’m told) owes money to the two buying points: perhaps Rmb100m (£10m) in the case of Vivaki Exchange; the amount owing to OMG (which uses the same broker) is unknown. Whatever the exact nature of the shortfall, it will now be impossible to make good, owing to the scandal. As a measure of how serious the situation is, both Hui and Ye were interviewed by the police on September 4. They were released after 48 hours, but told not to leave the country pending further investigation. I understand that police enquiries have extended to the general manager of Pepsi’s bottler in south-west China. Pepsi is Huayu’s second largest client. Media buying is handled by OMG via OMD.

China is one of the fastest developing advertising markets in the world. Asia Pacific, of which China is the largest component, will overtake North America in size by 2014, according to recent research sponsored by Starcom MediaVest. China’s ad market is already nearly as big as that of Western Europe.

UPDATE 13/10/10. OMD China has “let go” its managing director of five years Winnie Lee and replaced her with Siew Ping Lim, formerly of WPP-owned Mindshare, who holds the upgraded title of ceo. Lee, who “does not have a clear plan at the moment“, will leave next month. Is her departure by any chance related to the above events?

FURTHER UPDATE 23/11/10. More evidence of stress and strain at OMD China. OMD’s Johnson & Johnson global account director, Ben Jankowski, who relocated to China in June – because, he said, it was the place to be – has quit. He is crossing the line to become global media head of Mastercard early next year. Team turmoil is said to be the cause.


I-Level default sends tremors through the industry

May 6, 2010

For those in marcoms, the descent of digital agency I-Level into administration has some alarming echoes of the sovereign debt crisis being played out in Greece.

Just a few short months ago, no one would have seriously contemplated the possibility of either event. Now, we’re beginning to worry that this portends the second leg of financial meltdown, and that a domino effect will ensue.

I don’t want to push the parallel too far, of course. I-Level’s management was always infinitely more competent than that of the Greek economy. Nonetheless, for those who had eyes to see it, this was a calamity waiting to happen. The detonator clock started ticking in February when I-Level, in alliance with Starcom MediaVest, lost out to WPP’s GroupM in a pitch for the COI’s £250m consolidated media planning/buying account. Up to that point, government digital media business accounted for £40m of I-Level’s billings, or about 40% of its revenue. Replacing a slug of income that big was never going to be easy, but the difficulty was exacerbated by I-Level’s financing mechanism. Private equity investors ECI bought a 60% chunk of the group in April 2008, as a precursor to its international expansion. The deal valued I-Level at about £46.5m, but had the effect of burdening it with debt of £32m – much of it redeemed at an unsustainable interest rate of 12%pa. Put another way, that meant the group had to earn pre-tax profits of at least £3m a year merely to cover its interest payments. Guess what? The punitive interest payments kicked in just as I-Level was beginning to lose business. And that was before the coup de grâce delivered by the COI.

Even so, its disappearance is a shock. Set up in 1999 by Andrew Walmsley and Charlie Dobres, I-Level had near-iconic status as one of the few first-wave digital agencies that surfed the dotcom bust and managed to retain its independence. Among its blue chip clients are Procter & Gamble, The Sun, Orange, Sky, Renault, Comet and Samsung. Its top brass, who are now all out of a job, include respected industry figures such as Walmsley himself, chief executive Steve Rust and chairman David Pattison. Up to 100 people are expected to be made redundant. I-Level’s demise is a warning, not merely to those who would sell out to private equity investors, but of the fragility of fortunes, even in the relatively buoyant digital sector.

UPDATE: RIP I-Level. The administrator, Zolfo Cooper, has liquidated I-Level. Media owners such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google will be faced with multi-million pound losses. It’s the biggest and most spectacular implosion of a high-profile agency since Yellowhammer went bust in 1990. The only part of I-Level to survive is the fast-growing social media operation, Jam, which was sold to Engine yesterday. That means about 20 staff out of a total of 120 have been reprieved.

ELSEWHERE IN ADLAND, I note the champagne corks are popping – and for good reason. DDB London learned this week that it had scooped the £75m Virgin Media account, previously with RKC&R/Y&R.

Woodford: Walking tall

Its understandably chipper chief executive Stephen Woodford tells me that the agency’s proposed integrated strategy was key to winning the business. Whatever, it’s not every day an agency wins an account that instantly boosts its income by 10%. And it gets better. DDB is heavily dependent upon international business, such as VW. Virgin is almost entirely domestic. It thus provides the London office with some valuable “shop window” advertising that should in time attract other local buyers.


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