M: shows selling up does not always pay off

There are few independent agency bosses who could not be tempted to sell up for the right price.

Alec Mattinson: 'Private equity interest has been piqued again and while the benefits of investment are many, the pitfalls also remain plentiful.'
Alec Mattinson: 'Private equity interest has been piqued again and while the benefits of investment are many, the pitfalls also remain plentiful.'

The prospect of turbo-boosting growth, getting catapulted into new markets and receiving a nice lump of cash and/or equity to share among staff and the bank manager - it is a compelling proposition.

But life in a group-owned or private equity-backed agency can come with its own complications.

Last week saw the resignation of seven senior executives at City agency M:Communications, including its two founders Nick Miles and Hugh Morrison.

M: was the fast-rising star of City PR in 2008 when it was snapped up by private equity-backed Sage Holdings (subsequently rebranded as King Worldwide).

The deal was set to super-charge M:'s global growth - a similar rationale to recent private equity investments in Blue Rubicon and College Group - but the industry grapevine suggests the high-margin City PR business is effectively subsidising areas of the King Worldwide business.

M: seems to have weathered the financial storm, but while it has seen contemporaries Brunswick, RLM Finsbury and FTI make a push into the US, M: has been unable to fund an American hub.

It also appears the potentially lucrative share options and packages that have enticed senior staff to join or stay on have begun to look rather less than lucrative.

So it all adds up to a rather inevitable parting of the ways.

Miles, Morrison et al are working their notices and will doubtless be back once any legal complications are ironed out - in the same way they returned to build M: after walking out of then-Cordiant Communications owned Financial Dynamics in 2001.

But the story is an interesting illustration that agency sales do not always have a happy ending.

Private equity interest in the industry has been piqued again and while the benefits of investment are many, the pitfalls also remain plentiful.

A business morphing into someone else's balance sheet investment brings financial pressures - but it also brings risk as the agency becomes integrally tied to the fortunes of its owner.

Almost every comms business is looking to diversify. That takes cash, which creates opportunities between agencies and suitors.

Crucially though, due diligence is a two-way street. The right partner for a comms business needs more than deep pockets, and recent history provides evidence that agency bosses need to be careful about what they wish for.

alec.mattinson@haymarket.com

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