Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Dentsu makes land-grab in content marketing war

As armies form and battle lines are drawn in HBO's Game Of Thrones, you get the sense of inevitability of the wars to come. And...

News last week of Dentsu Aegis Network’s acquisition of the award-winning publisher John Brown Media made everyone pause for thought. It’s a move that makes sense on many levels and yet no-one had seen it coming.

John Brown has been a leader in content marketing for the past 25 years, responsible for some celebrated photography and editorial work for the likes of John Lewis, Royal Bank of Scotland, Jamie Oliver and Waitrose. It consists of a core team of 150 people in west London's Ladbroke Grove, 70 in South Africa, 12 in Dubai, 10 in Hong Kong and a further seven being hired in Boston, US.

For John Brown’s chief executive, Andrew Hirsch, it’s a case of "if you can’t beat them, join ’em". For the past two years, Hirsch had grown increasingly cantankerous at the rise of so-called native advertising and content solutions teams. This, he liked to remind me, is what John Brown does for a living – they are the professionals. Why were clients getting so excited just because media agencies have started to talk about it? Blunt, to the point and riled by a sense of injustice – I've always found him great company.

'John Brown gains scale, analytical expertise, access to hundreds of clients and best-in-class pitch teams'

The truth is, Hirsch and John Brown have spent the past 11 years being carried by the private investors Bridgepoint – that’s a long time for the money men. Exactly how much they sold the business for is being kept closely under wraps – but I suspect Dentsu has snagged a bargain. The company reported turnover of £38.3 million last year and a loss of £4.4 million. This compares with turnover of £51 million back when it was bought by Bridgepoint for £20 million in 2004.

It’s worth highlighting how, despite everyone agreeing that content is essential in today’s marketing mix, many of those dedicated to producing it have been paddling like mad just to stay afloat.

For his part, Hirsch talks of a "great cultural fit" and has obvious respect for the entrepreneurial spirit apparent within Dentsu (they have already worked together on a brief in the US). Hirsch will be sticking around to help manage the transition on a five-year earn-out.

At its new home, John Brown immediately gains scale, analytical expertise, access to hundreds of clients and a network of best-in-class pitch teams. It will work with all Dentsu agencies, but top of mind is iProspect. Its global leader, Ben Wood, is keen to stress the "content credibility" John Brown brings to his search optimisation and content amplification specialist.

The deal has been some nine months in development, and was further complicated by plans for the company to move from its west London office in Ladbroke Grove to the West End; a relocation that remains in place.

Reaction from four rival agency leaders since the news broke has been near-identical: very smart, potentially, and more than a passing concern.

Wood is revelling in the moment."I hope people are nervous," he says. "Because we’re going to be looking to use John Brown to pivot our offering on every pitch, wherever possible."  

Watch this space: Dentsu might have just found itself the equivalent of a new-business dragon.