2016 M&A Review: Independent Firms Propel Restless Acquisition Market
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2016 M&A Review: Independent Firms Propel Restless Acquisition Market

For a second straight year, merger and acquisition activity in the public relations sector was dominated by independent agencies seeking to add or expand their capabilities.

Paul Holmes

2016 M&A Review: Independent Firms Propel Restless Acquisition Market

For a second straight year, merger and acquisition activity in the public relations sector was dominated by independent agencies seeking to add or expand their capabilities—largely in the digital and content creation space, according to the annual analysis of industry deal activity by the Holmes Report.

Check our new podcast on M&A activity in the PR sector, including predictions for 2017.

The Holmes Report covered 61 acquisitions in the public relations business globally last year—exactly the same number we covered in 2015. And once again the majority of those deals (36, or 59%) were carried out by independent PR firms—up slightly from the 57% made by independent firms in 2015.

It’s hard to say whether that’s because independent PR firms have become more active and more assertive in the M&A arena; because the large holding companies have been less willing to spend; or because PR agency principals have indicated a strong preference for being bought by others of their ilk.

The acquiring agencies included a number of midsize agencies such as W2O Group in the US (three acquisitions), Finn Partners in the US and Four Communications in the UK (both of which made a couple of deals), or Hallvarsson & Halvarsson in Sweden, Farner in Switzerland, and National PR in Canada. But they also include boutique firms such as rbb and Steinreich Communications in the US and SPAG in India.

Another 18% of deals (11) involved small or specialist holding companies, including Next Fifteen (two digital acquisitions), Allison+Partners parent MDC, or Dentsu Aegis—which announced its intent to build a global network with the acquisition of Mitchell Communications in 2013 but has been largely quiet since.

And interestingly, two of the big acquirers were themselves the subject of deals during the year: Finn Partners sold a minority stake to Stagwell and W2O sold a minority stake to Mountaingate, with the money raised through those deals presumably intended to fund further M&A activity during 2017.

Once again, the large holding companies were quieter in the market, although Interpublic agencies made four acquisitions (most notably, Golin’s acquisition of ad agency Brooklyn Brothers), while Publicis helped its public relations unit MSLGroup make three acquisitions: North Strategic in Canada; Quadrant in Nigeria; and Venus Communications in Vietnam, all designed to expand the firm’s geographic footprint.

Thirteen of the deals (21%) involved digital and social media specialists or firms focused on content creation—including a trio of deals (Marketeching Solutions, Pure Communications, and Sentient Interactive) made by W2O Group.

There was also a flurry of activity in the healthcare sector, where major acquisitions included Pegasus of the UK (acquired by specialist holding company UDG) and ReviveHealth in the US (acquired by Weber Shandwick).

Activity was dominated by acquisitions in the US (28 deals, 46%) and the UK (15 deals, 25%) but there were also deals for firms in markets as diverse as Brazil, India, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria and Sweden.

MSL and W2O were the most active acquirers (three deals each).

The biggest deals of the year involved:

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