ANALYSIS: Chime's Bell keeps stoking the fires

With a takeover of Freuds and closer links with WPP regarding its advertising business being mooted, it's been quite a week for the Chime Communications rumour mill. Adam Hill asks whether the media giant's star is fading or burning bright?

After seven years of double-digit growth for Chime Communications, the brakes came on during 2001.

Although still number three in PRWeek's marketing services group league table, behind WPP and Omnicom, Chime's fee income dropped and its share price has taken a hammering during the past year, down from a high of 147.5p to 61.5p. Staff are also down to 800, from 1,200.

The latest publicity about Chime surrounds a reported deal in the pipeline with WPP, regarding Chime's advertising business HHCL.

A senior Chime source admits there is some truth in the speculation: 'We are in talks to give HHCL an international role and we are moving towards the close of those talks.' But the source denies that this means a sell-off of Chime's advertising interests to concentrate on any particular marketing discipline: 'We're not selling, we're looking at a joint venture.'

Similarly, Chime chairman Lord Bell remains fiercely optimistic over what he calls 'stock market games, which are nothing to do with marcoms'.

He says: 'I haven't enjoyed this recession but that doesn't mean I've lost heart. We're in very good shape for the upturn.'

He is also keen to point out that Chime's situation must be taken in the context of a difficult year: 'Our share price has fallen no more than others over a period of time. I don't think we've underperformed. We performed on par in a very difficult market. Share prices are decided by buyers and sellers meeting in a marketplace. Anyone who values their company by share price alone is a bloody fool and doomed to unhappiness.'

While Chime is certainly not alone in having a disappointing year, Bell's assertion that 'being big is the way to go' remains unchallenged.

For Chime's PR agencies the future indeed appears brighter than that of the advertising business.

An international PR division - 'sans frontieres' - was set up in May and Bell Pottinger Public Affairs continues to perform well, with notable account wins this year from mm02 and 3i.

Chime bought CSR specialist The Smart Company last September, with four more acquisitions rumoured to be on the table during 2001, although all were abandoned.

'We have good people, with good brands, doing good business,' Bell maintains.

However, two recent targets, Freud Communications (PRWeek, 9 August) and finance shop College Hill Associates (PRWeek, 2 August), have eluded Chime - for the moment at least.

Freuds - with a raft of big-name consumer clients including Mercedes and Nike - would reinforce a Chime PR-fold not known for its consumer specialism. But College Hill seems more tricky.

Even allowing for Chime's stated desire to expand through acquisition, adding another financial specialist to its portfolio - which already contains Bell Pottinger First Financial and Smithfield Financial, the latter under Chime's Bell Pottinger Good Relations banner - looks a little like overkill.

Unless, that is, there are worries about the performance of its existing finance brands.

Bell says: 'We are keen on it (College Hill) because it is a good business, well-run and doing well, and therefore a good addition to our fold.' In a market in which M&A and IPO work has virtually dried up, there is a compelling logic to expanding Chime's non-transactional work via College Hill's broader expertise, explains Bell.

Also it's worth noting that financial work is only ten per cent of its business and the acquisition would have more than doubled that. Bell is not only keen on the business per se; some peace of mind would be welcome, too. He candidly admits that Chime's financial PR offering is 'one of the two main problem areas', along with losing big clients on the advertising side of the business.

Although neither Freuds nor College Hill would comment on the potential deals, College Hill chairman Alex Sandberg says: 'We've always believed retainers are where we are focused; M&A is a different business stream although it isn't as though we don't do any M&A.'

Of the current economic climate, Sandberg says: 'We're finding it quite exciting - recession is the time that the flasher operators get their comeuppance.' It would be an uncharitable observer who drew the conclusion that he has someone specific in mind.

Floated in 1994, Chime contains such a diverse collection of PR, marketing, advertising and research functions that it would be inconceivable that they would all perform consistently well at any given time. Called upon to name the bright spots in Chime's year, Bell chooses healthcare, research and direct marketing.

And, Bell may still be cheered to hear the comments of one City analyst, who said of Chime's finance businesses: 'Like all PR agencies they are suffering from the dearth of M&A and IPO work. I don't think it's anything company-specific. They have a good chunk of retained business and when the tide lifts, they will lift with it. They're not crippled.'

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