Arun Sudhaman 23 Sep 2011 // 8:35AM GMT
Buying one agency can be hard enough. So, for many industry observers, buying six in barely a year seems like the height of folly. There are cultures to unite, models to integrate and clients to keep happy - a bewildering array of challenges that often combine to scupper the most well-intentioned of agency purchases. And yet, perhaps MSLGroup knows what it is doing. The newest of the big PR networks has made six small- to mid-size purchases over the past year, bringing in Andreoli (Brazil), Eastwei and Genedigi (China), 20:20 (India), ICL (Taiwan) and - last week - US independent Schwartz. In geographic terms, there is little to quibble with. CEO Olivier Fleurot has been charged with bringing scale to the smallest of Publicis Groupe’s various marcomms divisions, and the weakest PR operation of the 'big four' holding groups. He has started to do this by addressing what was, in my view, a glaring weakness - the visible lack of presence in key emerging markets. So it would be a little churlish to second-guess this strategy now, especially when there are other aspiring PR networks that remain unable to build a credible presence in China, India or Brazil. If you are going to buy multiple firms, why not buy them in a relatively short space of time, rather than spreading out the organisational ‘pain’ over a longer period? MSLGroup, more than perhaps any other big network, is already in a tangible state of flux. Given the shifting nature of the global PR market, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Disregarding the acquisitions, it is still in the process of integrating numerous Publicis Groupe PR businesses under the MSLGroup banner. That alone makes for a lengthy process of change. The attempt to combine MS&L with Publicis Consultants across Europe, for example, often seems like the toughest task of all. Do six more agencies really make that much of a difference? Certainly, there are questions that can be raised about the various firms that have been brought into the fold, the same queries that are asked whenever an independent is snapped up by the bigger fish. But it would be unrealistic, and probably impossible, to expect any network to expand purely by buying only the best firms in every market. For many observers, particularly in the US, MSLGroup’s sudden surge up our Global Rankings to over $400m in fee income remains a source of some wonder. But while markets plunge and purses inevitably tighten, it appears that the firm is unlikely to slow down its spending spree anytime soon. Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy has come late to the PR game, but there is a sense within the group that public relations is well-placed to take advantage of accelerating digital demands. That makes plenty of sense. Maybe MSLGroup’s acquisition strategy does too.