Uncertainty on Wall Street, Big Deals on Madison Avenue
Robust M&A activity – NY Times- Sept. 16, 2011 (McCrackenAP client Lunchbox noted paragraph three)
THREE years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers produced worldwide financial disruption, advertising agencies continue to face significant challenges. But Madison Avenue is, by and large, in better shape than many of the industries for which it creates ads.
To be sure, numerous agencies have succumbed to business woes. But no holding company that owns agencies has gone bankrupt. No agency with offices around the world has been forced to close, nor has any big agency in a large market like New York. And agencies are still making deals, actively pursuing mergers and acquisitions.
This summer, for instance, holding companies like Havas, the Publicis Groupe and WPP have announced deals for agencies like Big Fuel, DPZ, Host and Lunchbox.
And on Thursday, Publicis said that it would buy Schwartz Communications, a public relations agency with offices in Boston, London, San Francisco and Stockholm. It was the sixth acquisition of a public relations agency by Publicis in 18 months, according to The Holmes Report, a trade publication.
Another example of the trend will come on Friday, when MDC Partners, which owns agencies like Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners, is to announce the acquisition of majority stakes in two specialty agencies.
One agency, Concentric Pharma Advertising, creates campaigns for pharmaceutical marketers like Bayer, Novartis, Pfizer and Roche. Concentric has 75 employees who work at a headquarters in New York and an office in London.
The other agency, Laird & Partners, is based in New York and also has about 75 employees. It specializes in ads for beauty, fashion and luxury-goods marketers like DKNY, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
MDC is estimated to be paying $20 million for the majority ownership stakes in both agencies, with additional considerations based on future performance.
The acquisitions are the second and third this year for MDC, which is based in Toronto and owns all or part of about 50 agencies. The previous deal in 2011 involved a New York agency named Anomaly. MDC made 13 acquisitions last year and two in 2009.
“When others are fearful, we are ambitious, and when others are ambitious, we are fearful,” said Miles S. Nadal, chairman and chief executive at MDC. “We see this time of uncertainty as a great opportunity.”
Although “the European debt crisis is a big issue because it’s affecting the confidence of C.E.O.’s everywhere,” Mr. Nadal acknowledged, “business for us has been terrific,” with a 24 percent increase in the first half in organic growth — revenue minus acquisitions and currency exchange — compared with the same period last year.
“We do not see any change in our clients’ patterns of behavior” in recent weeks, Mr. Nadal said. “The spending continues.”
That has encouraged him to pursue a “much more aggressive” acquisition strategy, he added, zeroing in on agencies in the fast-growing realms of digital marketing, social media and analytics; agencies in Asia, Europe and Latin America; and specialty agencies like Concentric and Laird.
Concentric was appealing, Mr. Nadal said, because health care “is obviously a critical area” in marketing. And Laird was appealing, he added, because “fashion, like music, is at the epicenter of pop culture.”
MDC and Concentric came to know each other in the last 18 months after Concentric began working on assignments with MDC agencies like Allison & Partners, Attention Partners and Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal.
“It solidified our belief that MDC was the right partner for us to help accelerate our growth and the growth of our clients’ brands,” said Ken Begasse Jr., who is co-chief executive at Concentric with Michael Sanzen.
“We’re already talking about establishing a satellite office on the West Coast,” he added.
Concentric, which was opened in 2003, had previously entertained offers, Mr. Begasse said, but he and Mr. Sanzen believed MDC’s “entrepreneurial bent” best matched theirs.
An agency “we were in talks with earlier ended up acquiring a different agency,” he added, which “was renamed two times and now no longer exists.” Trey Laird, chief executive and chief creative officer at Laird, which was opened in 2002, said that he, too, had “talked to lots of the different players” in Madison Avenue deal-making circles.
He found MDC attractive, he added, because “I never got the sense there was a corporate way of doing things that was enforced on you.”
Mr. Laird was introduced to Mr. Nadal through a mutual friend, Hamilton South, who sold a majority stake in his fashion-focused public relations agency, the HL Group, to MDC in 2007.
“It was nice to know someone who’d been through this whom I trusted,” Mr. Laird said.
Being part of MDC could help “take what we do to the next level,” he added, listing goals like expanding the digital division, adding offices overseas and “taking our expertise in fashion, luxury, beauty — high-image-driven brands — and applying it to other categories.”
Mr. Laird, like Mr. Nadal, said he had seen no signs of “dramatic shifts” in advertisers’ spending plans in response to the recent turmoil in American and European financial markets, which he described this way: “It’s up. It’s down. It’s recovered. It’s not.”
“Certainly, everyone is watching everything closely,” Mr. Laird said, but clients know that “going dark” — that is, to stop running ads — “is not going to do any good when it’s so competitive.”
“You have to get in the ring, and you have to duke it out,” he added.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 16, 2011, on page B8 of the New York edition with the headline: Uncertainty on Wall Street, Big Deals on Madison Avenue.