New predators stalking the agency landscape

A new breed of City-backed firms claims to offer a friendly takeover option to young media companies in need of cash, but not wanting to sell out to a WPP and lose their identities, as IanQuinn reports.

The re-emergence of Allan Rich, former chairman of MediaCom, in the industry he supposedly retired from two years ago would not normally be the sort of stuff to raise too many eyebrows.

After all, hardly a day goes by without some former bigwig or other popping up as a non-executive director at a media company somewhere.

Usually the market can rest safe in the knowledge that he or she will enjoy a few dinners at Soho House and attend the odd board meeting but that's about it.

Not only does Rich strongly reject that such a stereotypical image is an accurate description of his new position, but he may find himself in the spotlight more than most, given his new role.

Rich's expertise has been called on to help his new employers, Cello Group, track down targets to buy within the media industry.

He has joined what has been described as a new brand of predators stalking the media landscape in search of stray players with some potential, although this lot claim to be friendlier than some of those that have gone before them.

Cello, run by businessmen Mark Scott and Kevin Steed, is one of a handful of City-backed firms looking to mop up some of the most promising young media companies in the UK in areas where there is still great fragmentation.

For those asking if there are indeed any companies left that haven't already ended up as lunch for WPP chief exec Martin Sorrell, hiring the former boss of the UK's biggest media agency to a non-executive spot on the board signals that Cello certainly thinks so. The stock market-listed marketing services group is planning to swoop in for around £100m worth of acquisitions in the next few months alone.

While the likes of WPP, Publicis and Omnicom have dominated all the takeover talk in the market, new players such as Cello, while nowhere near the scale of the aforementioned, are not without resources – thanks to their backing in the financial markets.

What's more, the company claims it offers a potentially less trying alternative for those who have sweated blood to create their own firms and need extra cash to make them fully fly but who don't want to sell out to a Sorrell or a Levy from the big networks, who have been busy consolidating massive chunks of the industry.

Gobbled up

Rich – who has witnessed from afar his old media agency, MediaCom, being bought up by WPP as part of the Grey Global deal – believes many talented people in the industry are loath to see their brands go the same way, which is one of the things that convinced him to become an investor in Cello, as well as a director as of 1 June.

"There are a lot of media companies out there who don't want to be gobbled up by the WPPs of this world," he says. "When that happens, in time, they lose their brand values."

MediaCom staff might have joined the world's dominant media buying group, but unless they are Ed Meyer, not too many of them are likely to get a seat on the WPP board – something which Cello and similar companies are offering the management of their, albeit far smaller, buyout targets.

While not naming names, Cello's shopping list includes strategic communications companies, of which the likes of Naked are at the top of the field, online specialists, of which the same could be said about I-Level, independent media agencies and a whole batch of research companies and direct marketing outfits.

The company has already accrued assets in the marketing field, including Scotland's dominant creative agency, The Leith Agency, and the Target Direct Group.

But analysts expect the next few weeks and months to see several other names added to its portfolio.

”The City is taking them very seriously indeed," says David Bezem, director and head of media at Close Brothers Corporate Finance. "The City is also putting real money behind them to support them in funding acquisitions."

Cello is currently valued at a mere £30m, making it an absolute minnow compared to the scale of the marketing network giants.

Yet Scott, the company's chief executive – who knows all about Sorrell and WPP, having been a former executive with the company – says it has plans to more than treble in the near future.

"We want to be a £100m company in a very short space of time," he says. "We're not saying we're going to become the biggest marketing services group in the UK, but we want to be able to turn round and say we are the best."

This is fine talk, but can such a new player on the block really stand a chance against the big guns?

Previous attempts at building marketing empires from these shores – WPP aside – by other small and nimble predators have met with mixed success.

The likes of Incepta, where Cello's executive chairman Steeds was once finance director, have had an up and down history and have turned chiefly towards the public relations arena.

Media Square, another of Steeds' old companies, has built up business mainly in the retail and home-shopping marketing area.

Yet Cello may have timed its raid on the market perfectly with advertisers increasingly looking at new types of marketing services as traditional forms of advertising not only become more consolidated, but also, because of audience fragmentation, less effective.


Bezem says: "It's becoming harder and harder for traditional forms of marketing to be effective, and people are looking at new ways to market to their audiences. There is still great fragmentation in many of these areas and where there is fragmentation, there is often the opportunity to make money."

Cello is not alone in spotting the opportunity.

Creston Group, another stock market listed company, also has its eyes trained on some of the as yet un-plundered treasures in the mainstream marketing industry, including the advertising arena.

Three weeks ago, Creston put itself on the map by snapping up creative agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners in a deal worth a cool £40m.

Like Cello, Creston's game plan includes offering cash as well as shares to the management of companies it wants to by. In the case of DLKW&P, it made their managers millionaires overnight.

Companies who decided to sell to companies like Creston and Cello may not get the best price but they stand a much better chance of keeping their name on the company sign outside their offices and potentially more control over the destiny of their firms, with the bonus of more funding from the city than they have enjoyed previously.

Roddy Davidson, a media analyst at Altium Securities, believes companies like Cello and Creston can become significant players, especially in certain areas of the media industry.

"They regard themselves as consolidators within the specialist end of the market," he says. "I don't think there's any way of them getting to the sort of size of the big players – or that they would expect to – but they may be able to make significant inroads in an area of the market which is pretty fragmented."

While nobody would dispute that the specialist agencies are home to some talented people, the smaller media and marketing companies don't necessarily impress financial analysts, existing as independents with no group financial backing in a pool of much bigger fish.

"From a City perspective, these companies are a bit subscale in terms of both their size and their market capitalisation and also in terms of the revenue generated," says Davidson.

Scott claims that Cello will take companies earning profits of £1m plus a year and soon transform that into £3m a year and more.

He admits there is also an element of Cello trying to get in first before all the decent companies are snapped up, although both Cello and Creston have expressed their ambition to expand abroad as well.

Davidson says specialist agencies could benefit by getting into bed with this new breed of investors, but he has a warning for them if they start getting too big for their boots, even if they do manage to go global.

"You could be quite a significant quoted company and still be bought out by a WPP and disappear," he says.


"If the likes of Cello do a good job in consolidating the minnows, then they too will probably be consolidated."

What goes around often comes around, as Scott, Steed and Rich well know, but in the process, if things go their way, the new players on the block could be considerably richer than when they started out.

And Bezem does not agree with the theory that Cello and Creston will inevitably themselves become fodder for bigger fish.

"I think with people with the credentials of Mike Scott and Kevin Steed at Cello and Don Elgie [the former creative agency boss who runs Creston] – they have a credible story about bundling companies together," Bezam says.

"I don't think necessarily their game plan is that they will one day be bought out by Omnicom or WPP." He adds: "I think they are very serious about providing value for money for their shareholders."

And at the same time provide a refreshing change for those fed up with the same old names dominating the industry.

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