Big Ad merger sorely misjudged its audience
By John Foley
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Publicis Omnicom has gone the way of New Coke and Microsoft Zune ā ideas that looked great on paper, but sorely misjudged their audiences. The merger of the two advertising agencies was called off after it became clear the deal couldnāt be completed in a reasonable time frame, the two said on May 9.
From up high, the Franco-American union was a triumph of financial logic. The companies were nearly identical in size and in earnings. Savings of $500 million created value, but didnāt suggest massive cuts. Publicis Chief Executive Maurice LĆ©vy and Omnicomās John Wren would have run the enlarged company, called Publicis Omnicom, together for 30 months. Wren would then have become sole chief executive and LĆ©vy chairman.
What Levy and Wren failed to account for was human behaviour. While their own management transition appeared elegant, it left plenty of room for bickering at lower levels. Key roles, like chief financial officer, remained undecided. Advertising is a people business, and itās not clear that scale brings more creative ideas. Even shareholders were lukewarm ā the stocks of both companies are barely higher than when the union was unveiled.
Regulators too were slow to approve the deal. Chinaās antitrust watchdog, which was yet to assent, may simply have behaved with characteristic torpor, but Franceās tax regulator may have legitimately asked why it should assist a deal that moves the companyās tax residence to the United Kingdom, helping shift $80 million a year from government coffers to shareholders.
Perhaps the biggest reason for conscious uncoupling was clients. The companiesā biggest rival, WPP, had proclaimed that companies from Pepsi to Vodafone were shifting their loyalties. Even if that was just part of the normal cycle of agency rotation – and chief executive Martin Sorrellās spin machine – itās unlikely that clients and media companies would have benefitted from reduced competition. All decent ad execs know that if the client doesnāt buy the concept, itās just not going to work.