NEW YORK, June 4—It’s only a couple of weeks since the public relations industry officially recognized the world’s first $300 million agency—four of them, actually—but a deal is in the works that could dwarf those firms, creating a $500 million firm that would almost certainly be the largest player in the technology, investor relations, public affairs and entertainment sectors.
If the Interpublic Group (IPG) completes its acquisition of True North as planned, it is reportedly planning to merge True North’s public relations operation, BSMG Worldwide, with its existing Weber Shandwick Worldwide subsidiary, and not with Golin/Harris International—initially assumed to be the most logical consolidation candidate.
A Golin-BSMG merger would have given IPG two $300 million PR firms, but it seems that the holding company and its Allied Communications subsidiary, headed by Weber Group founder Larry Weber, would rather take the opportunity to create what would be indisputably the largest PR firm in the world—a $500 million global powerhouse that would create the “bully pulpit” Weber spoke of when the Weber Shandwick merger was announced.
But a Weber Shandwick-BSMG deal would be about more than just creating the biggest public relations agency in the world.
When the Weber Shandwick deal was announced both Weber and Shandwick’s Scott Meyer articulated a vision of an agency that would be a leader in five key practice areas: technology, consumer lifestyles and entertainment, public policy, financial and capital markets, and healthcare. But when the marriage was consummated, the new firm was not the number one in any of those areas, according to the rankings produced by the Council of Public Relations Firms.
A Weber-BSMG merger would certainly remedy that. Based on the Council of PR Firms’ rankings, the new firm would be number one in technology, consumer marketing and public affairs; number three in corporate and financial communications (it would almost certainly be number one in investor relations, which the Council does not break out); and number seven in healthcare, a practice both firms have been attempting to grow.
The merger would also help Weber Shandwick in some geographic markets where it lacks the critical mass to be a leader, most notably New York. Weber Shandwick is currently ranked 15th in the world’s largest public relations market. The merged company would be fourth, with revenues of around $50 million. In Chicago, where Weber Shandwick doesn’t even have a presence, the merged company would rank second. The new firm would also become an instant market leader in Texas, where BSMG has been thriving.
Perhaps more important is that the deal will help Weber Shandwick address some critical leadership issues. With CEO Larry Weber spending most of his time at the holding company level, with president Marijean Lauzier scheduled to depart in a couple of months, and with a handful of senior Shandwick people having exited in the wake of the merger, the agency is awfully thin at the top levels for an operation its size.
Joining forces with BSMG would add some proven leaders, starting with president and CEO Harris Diamond, whose experience would make him uniquely suited for the task of integrating three disparate cultures. When Diamond took over at the helm of his current shop, it consisted of three units that barely acknowledged each other’s presence: Robinson Lake Lerer & Montgomery, Sawyer Miller, and Bozell PR. Today it’s a seamlessly integrated agency with a cohesive identity and a collegial culture.
It’s easy to see how other senior BSMG executives, from Andy Polansky, Gail Heimann and Laura Schoen in New York to Barbara Molotsky in Chicago to Ken Luce in Texas could add value to Weber Shandwick’s existing management team, which includes luminaries such as chairman Scott Meyer and executive VP Cathy Lugbauer. In terms of finding key roles for all the key players, a Weber-BSMG merger actually appears to create far fewer problems than a Golin-BSMG merger might have done.
There will be challenges, of course, including some difficult personnel decisions, and issues related to the brand. While BSMG has enjoyed spectacular growth in recent years—from $43 million in 1996 to $192 million last year—and has established itself as a first rate agency, its brand recognition lags its performance, while the Shandwick name has never really established itself outside the U.K., and the Weber name has never really established itself outside the technology sector.
It’s hard to imagine Weber or Meyer or Diamond losing much sleep over that, however. A $500 million PR agency can buy all the name recognition it needs.