Marketing mergers and acquisitions: Who’s going to be buying who in 2015?

8th January 2015

The cards and decorations have come down, the hangovers have abated and the country is drifting back, slowly, and perhaps unwillingly, to work. Time, then, to look back – briefly – on 2014 and forward to 2015.

2014 was an interesting year for mergers and acquisitions, with some of the few large indies being snapped up – Sapient (by Publicis) and London’s Engine Group (by private equity house Lake Capital) being perhaps the two most notable.

But it will be perhaps better remembered for what didn’t happen rather than for what did. I’m talking of course about The Mega-Merger That Never Was, the $35bn tie-up between Publicis and Omnicom, the biggest deal in our industry’s history, and one that would have been – much to Sir Martin Sorrell’s chagrin – the largest advertising and marcomms group in the world.

The reasons why it didn’t happen – cultural, political, a perceived lack of shareholder value – have already been covered in depth here on The Drum; but more interesting for our purposes here is what the failed merger means for the future.

Effectively, huge mergers are now out of fashion, at least for the time being. While further consolidation will be inevitable – it’s what global clients and their procurement departments (who are increasingly playing a part in new business pitches) want – growth in 2015 will increasingly come organically, through smaller-scale acquisitions in fast growing channels (mobile and social particularly) and territories (China, Brazil, India and Next Eleven countries).

Big deals will happen – IPG, the smallest of the Big Four groups (which also includes WPP, Omnicom and Publicis) looks particularly vulnerable; perhaps not from a rival group but from venture capitalists who may well believe that the New York-based marcomms company’s assets (which include Lowe, McCann, FCB, GolinHarris, Weber Shandwick, Profero and Octagon) are worth more being sold off as separate entities than they are under the IPG umbrella. But as the number of indies of significant scale dwindles, they will be priced at a premium, and deep pockets and nerves of steel will be required.

And I predict that high prices will also be driven by increasingly aggressive acquisition strategies from the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple. All of these cash-rich tech giants made big acquisitions in 2014 – Apple bought the Beats headphone and music streaming business; Amazon bought gaming site Twitch; Yahoo bought Flurry, among many others; Facebook bought Oculus Rift and WhatsApp; and Google warmed to smart thermostat maker Nest and promptly bought it. Even stodgy old Microsoft got in on the act.

Between them, these tech giants spent upwards of $40bn on deals in 2014. Expect them to spend heavily over the next 12 months as they seek to both future-proof their business (tech giants can fall from grace alarmingly quickly, as the fates of the likes of MySpace, AOL, BlackBerry and Nokia demonstrate all too well) and exploit an increasingly interconnected world and the much-hyped internet of things.

So where will the focus be in 2015? Apart from mobile and social, I think it will lie in three interrelated areas: PR, market research and data. And I‘m certain we will see an upsurge in interest in outdoor advertising specialists.

Let’s start with outdoor, which is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Two of the last deals of 2014 were VC house Searchlight Capital Group acquiring – for an undisclosed sum – outdoor specialist Ocean Group; and Dentsu Aegis’ purchase of Brazil’s leading outdoor operator OOH Plus, folding it into its Posterscope group.

Ocean operates some of the best-known outdoor sites in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and Leeds. These include Britain’s largest advertising site at London’s IMAX; the Two Towers East and Two Towers West, which dominate the main arterial corridors of London’s A4 and the financial district; and the Liverpool media wall, the UK’s largest full-motion advertising site.

Ocean also holds exclusive external rights for the most premium urban shopping mall in Europe, Westfield London, which has more than 28 million shoppers and spending power approaching £1bn.

The company also owns and operates Signature Outdoor, a market leader in premium large format outdoor media in Birmingham and the West Midlands and which is the commercial advertising partner for Birmingham City Council. So, whatever Searchlight paid, I think it will have got itself a good deal – Ocean is a very hot property indeed. Expect more of these companies to be snapped up in 2015.

The key to outdoor’s renaissance is digital technology. In a way, this isn’t new – the most famous ad site in the world is at London’s Piccadilly Circus, and everyone is familiar with the famous moving Coca-Cola neons there. But thanks to new tech, good old fashioned posters (which have always had a massive effect in terms of engagement, even if our interaction with them is often fleeting and at a distance – think of Wonderbra’s famous ‘Hello Boys!’ poster, or those striking B&H and Silk Cut ads of the 1970s and 80s) gain even more impact.

I think the new breed of outdoor ad is real ‘event’ advertising (a bit like Super Bowl ad breaks), bringing a sense of scale and theatre back into marcomms. The most awarded campaign of the year was OgilvyOne’s brilliant digital outdoor campaign for British Airways, “Magic of Flying”. Unlike linear broadcast TV, digital outdoor taps into the zeitgeist and is difficult for punters to ignore – especially if they’re stuck in a traffic jam, in a shopping or airport queue or waiting for a train.

And digital technology is making it more interactive and visually interesting than even the best old posters – they can be updated regularly and as technology advances and interconnectedness increases, they can become more granular, even to the extent that different ads can be aired at different times of the day or even aimed at particular groups or individuals.

As ad legend Dave Trott said recently: “Digital outdoor is the thinking client’s choice. With the right idea and a good public relations team on board, it’s one of the quickest ways to get into the national conversation and make your brand famous. The growth potential is huge.”

Then there’s PR, market research and data – all three of them now inextricably connected. In terms of M&A, PR has been very popular over the past year – just before Christmas, three significant deals were concluded. First, Havas made a rare non-media purchase by snapping up US PR outfit Formula; China-based Blue Focus acquired Vision 7, the holding group which includes Cosette and highly-rated London PR shop Citizen Relations, from PE firm Mill Road Capital for $210m; and PR and communications group Next 15 bought “a significant stake” in the London-based international market research firm Morar, with the remaining 25 per cent being targeted for buyout in 2020.

In fact, a quick, unscientific web search reveals that there were probably more PR deals done than in any other discipline. This doesn’t come as a surprise – as we’ve said many times before on this blog, PR’s time has come. What makes PR shops doubly attractive to potential acquirers is the comparatively high margins they offer.

Advertising and marcomms have always offered decent margins, but these have been squeezed in recent years by the march of digital and demands from clients. However PR, which has adapted to the demands of the 21st century perhaps better than any other discipline, still offers good margins because it is closer to consultancy – the best outfits offering strategic insight and advice as well as securing media coverage and managing relationships with journalists and broadcasters – which is very hard to commodify (in contrast to, say, media buying). PR firms have also arguably been quicker in seizing the initiative in the use of data and owning the social media space than rivals in other disciplines.

Acquirers love good margins and thus well-managed and run PR shops will be popular purchases moving forward, especially digital and social media-savvy ones.

The same is true for market research companies, particularly those that offer quantitative research based on robust data – real-time online panels particularly. As a discipline, research has at the top end moved on from largely commoditised fieldwork into analytics, strategic insight and consultancy. At Green Square we advised on one of the largest market research deals during 2014, the acquisition by Japan’s Cross Marketing Group of London-based international research agency Kadence, whose operations in South-East Asia made it a particularly attractive prospect.

Aside from the giants like Nielsen, WPP’s Kantar and Ipsos, there are a lot of innovative boutique shops out there and I suspect we will see a lot of consolidation as the big groups snap them up – probably at premium prices. And one would imagine that the likes of Google and Facebook would also covet the insights that the experts at fleet-footed, forward-thinking outfits like LSE-listed Brainjuicer, Canada’s Vision Citical, InSites Consulting, London’s Basis and Communispace could offer. Could one of this quintet (or another outfit of similar stature) be a high-profile takeover or merger target in the coming months?

Finally, there’s data. Over the past few years a number of specialist data agencies have sprung up, many of them start-ups from experts at the CRM/eCRM and media departments of the big agency groups. As with market research, data is a discipline ripe for the consolidation that is a feature of contemporary western capitalism.

This is because – despite the chagrin of creatives – advertising is becoming an increasingly data-driven industry. Major media and advertising agencies are turning their focus more on the use of data analytics and digital experts to capitalise on the rise of mobile internet users and will continue to be important to the ad-media industry in 2015. The data is there, but the real trick is to understand what it is telling you and put those insights to use – particularly when developing strategies.

There are signs this is happening – to name but one example, WPP’s media agency Mindshare says it aims to build a “digital war room” for its clients. Called The Loop, this data monitoring, intelligence and controlling “war room”, which will monitor data from hundreds of sources in real time – including tracking competitors’ efforts – will be ready sometime before Q2 of 2015, according to WPP. (The idea is not entirely new – Mindshare has already had some success with a smaller Loop in the Far East.)

In media interviews, Mindshare executives have already said they are looking for data scientists to work with. In 2014, data scientists accounted for less than 3 per cent of total staff. By 2019, the agency hopes to get that proportion up to 20 per cent. Data scientists are currently in short supply – and given that IPG, Omnicom and Publicis will also be seeking their own data experts, the shortage is likely to become more acute. Acquiring smaller outfits or start-ups is one way of acquiring talent.

And, given that marketing communications is a ‘people business’, talent – not buildings, not infrastructure and not even clients – is the biggest single reason for buying anything.