News Analysis: Buying into the essence of Edelman

Edelman is pinning its collective hopes of a UK revival on last week's long-sought acquisition of consumer outfit Jackie Cooper PR. But it is too early to be popping celebratory champagne corks, says Gidon Freeman. Last week saw the end of one of the most protracted acquisition sagas in recent PR industry history, with the purchase by US global independent Edelman of UK consumer PR powerhouse Jackie Cooper PR for an undisclosed sum. It brings to a close a 17-year era during which JCPR's joint founders, Jackie Cooper and business partner Robert Phillips, built up one of the most robust brands in the UK consumer PR market - counting Coca-Cola, O2 and Masterfoods among its recent and current clients.

The takeover also fills a gap in the Edelman UK offering, as family scion and global chief executive Richard Edelman makes plain. 'The rationale for us is that this deal completes us,' he says. 'We've never cracked consumer in the UK for the past 20 years - despite some fits and starts we have been missing what is the essence of Edelman.

'The addition of JCPR, recognised as one of the most creative firms in the UK, strengthens our UK operation and advances our goal to expand our European network,' he adds.

Personnel problems

This is code for the fervent hope in the Edelman family business that this surely will fix the UK business. And it is clear that it is in need of fixing. In the PRWeek Top 150 last month, the agency was shown to have lost 25 per cent of its fee income in the calendar year 2003 - from more than £14m in 2002 to a fraction under £11m.

The downward spiral can be charted against a series of senior personnel changes over the past four years. These began with the departure in September 2001 of joint chief exec Tari Hibbitt, and the handing of sole CEO responsibility to the charismatic big-picture Irishman John Mahony. His own departure followed swiftly in July 2002, as did the departure of UK chairman Nigel Whittaker two months later.

The arrival from Cohn & Wolfe of James Thellusson to run the firm did not fare better, with Thellusson leaving in September 2003 after only a year to set up his own PR business.

The UK business is currently run by general managers Nigel Breakwell and Stuart Smith, although, given the track record of recent holders of their posts, that might have changed by the time this magazine appears.

On a European level, late last year the agency recruited David Brain, formerly joint UK CEO at Weber Shandwick, as its European president and CEO. Brain appears to have been peripheral to the JCPR deal, with the talks between his employer and its acquisition target predating his arrival at the turn of the year by several months.

Discovering precisely how long those talks went on for is a difficult business - partly because of the companies' understandable reticence on an issue of significant commercial confidentiality, and partly because all sides closed ranks to deny to PRWeek the existence of any deal, supposedly on 'specific legal advice'.

The way Richard Edelman describes it, unofficial chats stretch back a decade, with JCPR's eponymous founder 'holding on to Richard's business card' before re-activating the talks last year. Edelman's response to Cooper's approach is said to have been: 'Let's get married.'

As for the future, a question mark must hang over whether acquiring an agency of even JCPR's impeccable credentials will prove the panacea Edelman is looking for, restoring what is Edelman's essence.

Agreeing terms

In practical terms, the agency appears to have taken steps to ensure the acquisition is not just another false dawn for Edelman's troubled UK consumer PR function.

Crucially, the founders of JCPR need to stick around for an eye-watering six years if they are to realise much of the value they have created over the past couple of decades. This is double the routine three-year earnouts and seeing it through would be a tribute to both Cooper's and Phillips's staying power and to Edelman and Brain's skill as managers.

As one might expect, the JCPR founders are enthused by the prospect of the deal, even if it means they now have to report to Brain rather than being their own bosses, as has been the case until now.

But they, too, have taken steps to ensure they retain a measure of independence. They will stay in their New Cavendish Street base, eschewing the offer to move in with their new parents on Haymarket, and they will hold on to the name of the brand.

As Phillips describes it, this gives them the best of both worlds - access to a European and global stage while keeping hold of the spirit of the agency they have so lovingly built. 'They didn't buy us to change us,' he insists. 'They bought us because they like the work we do. We can now roll out our campaigns outside the UK.'

Likewise, Cooper points to the ability to punch their weight as a key benefit of the deal. 'We were delivering breakthrough campaigns but not getting on the best pitch lists. This is a way to get round that,' he says.

For his part, Brain is clear about where this deal now puts the agency he leads. 'Until now there have only been two agencies, in my opinion, that can do consistently great creative brand PR work - Hill & Knowlton and my own alma mater, Weber Shandwick. With this deal, there is now a third.'

His success in the job now depends on that assessment being correct.

JACKIE COOPER PR: WHAT EDELMAN HAS BOUGHT

- Founded by Jackie Cooper and Robert Phillips in 1987

- 14th place in PRWeek's Top 150 three weeks ago, with nine per cent year-on-year fee income rise from £3.95m (2002) to £4.32m last year (PRWeek, 23 April)

- Clients include: Allied Domecq, Wembley Stadium, O2, Kerzner International, Masterfoods, Thomas Pink, Hustler Hollywood and the Sherry Institute of Spain

- 61 staff in London.

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