Danny Rogers: Mergers beckon for the smaller fish

One of the first trends to emerge in 2011 has been consolidation in the UK consultancy market. We have already seen some significant mergers, including Four Communications' purchase of BGB this week, while the grapevine is alive with rumours of deals.

Mergers beckon smaller fish: Danny Rogers
Mergers beckon smaller fish: Danny Rogers

Over the past week, I have had meetings with one big agency boss looking to buy and a small agency founder looking to sell, while many senior industry contacts have tips for 'imminent' acquisitions.

Such consolidation is long overdue. Despite being a long-term growth sector, there are too many PR consultancies in the UK (I reckon I hear of a new one every other day). On the positive side, this means a dynamic and entrepreneurial market. But, conversely, few PR agencies have achieved the scale required to challenge management consultancies - or even some advertising shops - for really lucrative strategic comms contracts from big business.

The reasons for the lack of consolidation in the past two years include the recession, which has focused agencies on costs and new business rather than strategy, and the credit crunch, which has made capital scarce for potential acquirers.

One result has been the number of start-ups over the past couple of years. Good consultants have become frustrated with lack of career progression and property leases are more affordable.

Meanwhile, better-established small agencies have become keen to realise their work and investment.

Good specialist firms such as BGB, the UK's leading travel PR shop, may once have expected to be snapped up by one of the big networks.

But in the absence of this, they are looking for alternative strategies such as mergers with similar or mid-sized firms. This gives them the chance to achieve scale while still being central to the new venture. Some of these smaller deals are funded by private equity, which seems to be taking more of an interest in the PR world.

But with so many smaller independents apparently looking to sell, why are the big networks - Weber Shandwick, Fleishman, Huntsworth and so on - not buying so far?

It could be that there is now less appetite for the kind of opportunistic acquisitions that were common five or ten years ago.

One senses the big fish are more interested in similarly-sized tuna rather than cute minnows, favouring acquisitions that will create a sea-change in scale.

Expect some serious moves in this space this year.

The upshot could be an industry that is finally growing up.

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