Brexit: A buying opportunity for UK PR?

For almost half the country, the narrow victory for Brexit was a portent of doom but, while sterling has fallen to historically low rates - plunging to a 31-year low immediately after the result - predictions of immediate Armageddon now seem far-fetched.

Despite Article 50 not yet being invoked, UK PR chiefs clamouring for a ‘soft’ Brexit and claims the Government is making it up as it goes along in the negotiations, evidence suggests the UK PR industry is in rude health. 

Perversely, Brexit instability and the value of sterling, currently worth $1.22, might even make the prospect of buying a UK agency even more attractive than during the first half of 2016, although one agency chief PRWeek spoke to cautioned against making big decisions based on short-term currency fluctuations.

Matt Neale

Matt Neale (pictured above), president EMEA, of Golin - which acquired creative agency The Brooklyn Brothers in February – says he does not see M&A demand dropping off while the US dollar is so strong against sterling. 

He adds: "If the market believes the discount on sterling is short term and will then go back up to historic levels, then there is a window of opportunity where an American global firm could buy a UK firm at a discount. However, if the pound stays low, then returns will also be lower."

In any case, thinks Neale, agencies – including those that wish to sell - should be taking a strategic approach to M&A rather than trying to make a fast buck.

He says: "They will be thinking what the right course of action is in the long term, which is more important than short-term discounts. This would include whether they have found the right partner and the right strategic fit. This is just as, or even more, important than short-term price fluctuations."

Of course, world events will have a continuous impact on the M&A market and, in the event of Donald Trump winning the American presidency later this week, the dollar could be in for an even bigger slump than sterling since June, changing the picture once again.

Warren Johnson

For Warren Johnson (pictured above), founder of W Communications, with the ink barely dry on his agency’s acquisition of House PR, as well as a foray into a partnership with Amsterdam-based roycomm, there has never been a better time for M&A.

He says: "A significant amount of M&A is international and, given the weakness of the pound, now is a great time for M&A if buying in dollars or Euros. Currency fluctuations mean that international buyers will get a good deal." 

In its latest report, Results International said the number of M&A deals in the PR sector grew in the third quarter of 2016 - which looks at the period July to September - compared to the same period last year, from 23 to 28. 

However, with the average time to complete the process of an acquisition or sale being around nine months, even agency chiefs who have been through the process this year say it is too early to say what, if any, effect Brexit will have.

Neale says: "All deals announced post-Brexit will have been worked on for a year, so effectively they were inspired whilst agency leaders thought Britain would remain in the EU. Next summer's announcements will be a more accurate barometer."

Steve Earl

Steve Earl (above), managing director, Europe, of Zeno group - which acquired 3 Monkeys Communications in January – agrees that the picture will become clearer next year.

He says: "M&As are about long-term gain... I think it’s too early to say if Brexit has had an effect. I think we will be in a far better position to gauge it in nine months to a year’s time. I don’t think the industry is impervious to the effects but we have not seen the impact yet at this stage."

Other agency chiefs, such as James Henderson, group CEO of Bell Pottinger, told PRWeek that the Brexit effect would most likely have been felt before, rather than after, the referendum.

Businesses were nervous to commit until the Brexit result was clear.

James Henderson, group CEO of Bell Pottinger


He says: "Businesses were nervous to commit until the Brexit result was clear." But Henderson, too, is circumspect about predictions for next year.

He adds: "It is hard to forecast the effect. The context is that sterling is low, which may present buying opportunities. But the FTSE is high. So there is a trade-off between the devaluation of sterling and the robust performance of the FTSE index."

Whether or not Brexit does, in the end, have a negative effect, the constant battle between agencies to acquire and retain the best staff, could itself be a future driver for M&As.

With many agencies scrambling to adapt to a new environment in which content creators, data specialists and social media experts are the new 'must have', what better way to bring them on board than to buy a specialist agency of ten people, rather than hire them individually?

Buying an agency with 10 specialists is a much more efficient way to do it.

Warren Johnson, founder of W Communications


Johnson continues: "If you consider the courtship period for 10 individual specialists, you’d need to interview at least 10 per role, so ultimately you would be looking at seeing 100 candidates over multiple meetings. The hours spent on recruitment in this way vs time taken to get to heads of terms with an agency looking to sell means buying an agency with 10 specialists is a much more efficient way to do it. Furthermore, recruitment fees alone on 10 specialists – who might not even all pass their probation period – make an acquisition much more attractive."

Neale agrees, adding that the advantages to buying a team outright include a proven business model, collective culture and speed.

He says: "For agencies that are part of holding companies, it may be more attractive to raise capital and buy into a sector rather than slowly building a specialism hire by hire. Certain sectors such as content creation are so hot right now; you have to ask yourself, how long can you afford to stay out of the market?" 

It’s easier to buy an agency. If you’re trying to hire them all individually and build something, it’s really difficult. Sadly.

Collette Brown, co-founder of Prospect Resourcing


Even some PR recruitment firms agree that buying an agency full of specialists is easier than hiring them one-by-one.

Collette Brown, co-founder of Prospect Resourcing, says: "It’s easier to buy an agency. If you’re trying to hire them all individually and build something, it’s really difficult. Sadly."

And what of the Brexit effect on staff recruitment in PR. Are agencies and in-house teams shelving plans to expand in the wake of 24 June?

Sarah Leembruggen

No, says Sarah Leembruggen (above), managing director of The Works Search.

In an analysis of its own data, Leembruggen compared recruitment requests this year with 2015. 

She says: "So far, the hiring market has remained strong. We have handled exactly the same amount of roles this year compared to last and there has been no difference with the levels of the roles either. It’s heartening that agencies and in-house teams appreciate that life goes on and they are happy to continue replacing roles and investing in growth hires."    

Brown agrees that there has been no slowdown in recruitment that she can attribute to Brexit.
She adds: "The work that was live for us at the time of the result, continued. No roles were put on hold. If I had to predict any effect to come, it might have an effect on recruitment by global agencies."

And while agency chiefs are, at least publicly, buoyant about the prospects for the UK M&A market, report authors Results International, which brokers many such deals, think there are more reasons to be cheerful than temporary fluctuations in the value of the pound.

James Kesner

James Kesner (pictured above), director of Results International, says: "We spend a lot of time speaking to buyers and 95 per cent of them still need to do deals, especially the big networks. There is a little bit of nervousness from traditional buyers, perhaps, but fundamentally there are a lot of buyers out there and new buyers coming on board all the time. If I had to put my hat on it, I would say appetite will continue."

Kesner advises agencies considering putting themselves on the market to do so, without fear of the Brexit effect.

 You don’t hear many people say ‘we sold too early’ but people do wait too long on occasion.

James Kesner, director of Results International


He says: "My advice would be: does it make sense from a business perspective? If those reasons do make sense, they make sense whatever economic climate you’re in at the moment. If you end up sitting on a deal, there’s always something that makes you feel it’s not the right time. You don’t hear many people say ‘we sold too early’ but people do wait too long on occasion."

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