ANALYSIS: Publicis buying spree to bolster PR - The acquisition of Bcom3 last week by French giant Publicis can only mean a growth spurt ahead for the new group's major PR brand, says Ben Bold

Addressing the 'London 2000' conference on the future of marketing services in June of that year, WPP group CEO Martin Sorrell predicted that the research and PR industries were set for a period of consolidation.

He claimed that in the years to come only five significant players would remain: WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic, Dentsu and Bcom3. His prediction of exact companies may have been wide of the mark, but the trend was correct. The proposed takeover of Bcom3 by France's Publicis Groupe marks a further step in marketing's consolidation.

The £2.1bn deal means Publicis - led by CEO Maurice Levy - has now clinched fourth position in the global table. Across its operations, Publicis has traditionally been strong in Europe, whereas Bcom3 has a solid US presence.

The merger aims to extend their combined reach globally.

Publicis owns Saatchi & Saatchi as well as PR brands Manning Selvage & Lee, Rowland Communications and Publicis Dialog. Bcom3 was formed in 2000 from a merger between Leo Burnett and the MacManus Group, which owned ad agency D'Arcy.

As the takeover announcement was made, the group unveiled an alliance with Japan's Dentsu (which has a 20 per cent stake in Publicis). The motivation for the deal would therefore appear to be the rationalisation of its ad interests. But what of its PR brands? Most analysts see the takeover as a precursor for a Publicis PR shopping spree.

Up against the big three - WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom - the PR arms of Publicis and Bcom3 simply don't compare. When WPP acquired Young & Rubicam, the deal brought Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, Cohn & Wolfe and Ogilvy PR Worldwide under one roof. In the PRWeek 2001 Global Rankings the first three of those ranked third, fourth, and 18th respectively, with £500m combined income.

By comparison, MS&L's global position was 13th, with income of £70m.

Rowland ranked 20th, with £30m, and French PR shop Publicis Dialog racked up just £23m. There is a way to go before Publicis's latest incarnation can near the other groups in terms of PR.

It is hard to say what exactly is on the cards. Bcom3's MS&L, the new group's strongest PR brand, which has 29 wholly-owned offices and a network of affiliates, is reluctant to discuss plans for the group's rationalisation of its PR interests.

MS&L UK managing director Ann Moravick insists it is too early to pre-empt decisions on the group's PR direction: 'It's too early to predict what we are going to do in terms of the organisations.'

But with a trend towards globalisation and the integration of disciplines, analysts expect the group to bolster its PR presence. Results Business Consulting's head of corporate finance practice Tony Bond says: 'As a group the new outfit is underweight in PR. There is a strong case for buying.'

Bond says MS&L is too concentrated in the US, and Moravick agrees: 'We are committed to changing that perception, and are focused on international development.'

The agency ranked 32nd in the UK in last year's Top 150 league table (PRWeek, 27 April 2001), with fees of £4,872,000 - barely seven per cent of its global take. MS&L sources recognise there are only certain routes the agency can take to expand: it's not going to be possible through organic growth alone.

'Our goal is to expand internationally and we are committed to a fast-paced approach,' Moravick says. 'It is obvious size brings opportunities to have a bigger footprint, with greater resources (at your disposal)'.

So how will the Publicis-backed MS&L build its PR presence? Of the four options open to management - buying in key markets, starting up in new areas, buying existing networks, or forming more affiliations - analysts say the first route is the most likely.

Alex De Groote, an analyst at bank Credit Agricole, says: 'To get serious it would have to buy lots of small companies as bolt-ons'. However, he warns that the industry isn't growing that much and it's likely Publicis will focus on integrating existing assets before opening the chequebook.

Other industry watchers predict prioritising of PR acquisitions: 'I suspect Publicis will make headline buys,' says Adrian Wheeler, GCI Europe CEO.

'As the fourth largest group in the world, the size of MS&L stands out.' Wheeler insists MS&L is a strong PR brand, but the firm is smaller than it should be.

Another change anticipated by MS&L is greater integration of PR with ads. Moravick says MS&L shares some clients with Bcom3's ad agencies. 'We hope to do that with Publicis and its brands,' she says.

As consolidation in marcoms continues, the needs of this most recent marriage mirror those of previous deals - a tighter grasp on client delivery through balanced services. The boosting of the new Publicis's PR presence, through MS&L and acquisitions, is now a must.

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