Media Headliner: Stalwarts of the outdoor industry join forces

Aegis' acquisition of Concord brings together Posterscope's Annie Rickard and Alban's Alan Simmons.

With Aegis' acquisition of Concord last week, the creeping consolidation in the outdoor industry appears to be grinding to a close.

Not only was Concord the last independent company of any note, the deal also means the market is now dominated by two major players - Aegis and Kinetic, the company Sir Martin Sorrell created from Portland and Poster Publicity Limited in June this year.

Posterscope, Aegis' own poster buying brand, acquired all of the equity of Alban Communications Limited, Concord's holding company, for a maximum consideration of £8 million plus assets. Posterscope, which has a market share of around 34 per cent, will add Concord's 20 per cent share.

A main focus of the deal has been that Concord will retain its independence and be run as an independent company, but with the backing of a global network. The companies will work as separate entities but will be joined at board level by the chief executive of Posterscope, Annie Rickard, who will now sit on the Concord board.

"It's a technical requirement, but I certainly don't want to run their business," Rickard says. "There will be some sharing of resources, such as our research division, and a discussion about our buying strategies would make sense, but Concord will run Concord."

The acquisition payment, spread over three years, will be dependent on Concord hitting a set of "ambitious targets", according to Alan Simmons, Alban's chairman. It's unclear how much Simmons will make from the deal, as the venture capitalist 3i is Alban's largest shareholder, with a 30 per cent share.

It is widely believed that many of these targets will be based on the company keeping hold of blue-chip clients such as Masterfoods, Nestle and particularly Unilever.

The expectation in the industry is that Unilever is set to review at any moment, which has caused some observers to question the wisdom of finalising the deal right now.

However, Stevie Spring, the chief executive of Clear Channel UK, believes that through the deal, Posterscope is in a "win-win" situation. "If Unilever follows the global realignment trend and moves out of Concord, you can assume the purchase cost will drop massively. But if the client bucks the trend and stays at Concord, Posterscope has a complementary agency with one of the country's biggest advertisers."

The Unilever issue is high on the agenda for both Simmons and Rickard.

In separate interviews, both parties echoed each other's comments that, at the end of the day, the client will decide on what to do with its business.

Rickard says: "We've talked to Unilever and we have no doubt that they are confident about the deal. But we know that nothing is certain in this life, so we'll work closely with them to make sure they see the benefits of the deal."

Simmons adds: "The Unilever issue is bound to be mentioned, because people see this as a golden opportunity to steal a major piece of our business."

The deal was also spurred on by the knowledge that MediaCom, which makes up 19 per cent of Posterscope's business, is likely to move across to its WPP sister company Kinetic.

"This is probably a bigger issue than the deal itself," Spring says, "as it guarantees Aegis remains strong competition for Kinetic."

"Behind the scenes, Aegis knew there was a real threat from Kinetic - which has been making outrageous claims that it is going to move to number one in the market. This deal reasserts Aegis' market leadership," Simmons says.

News of the deal also casts doubts over the future of Helix, the joint buying group owned by Concord and Interpublic's IPM.

Rickard says the future of the company lies with IPM, while a Helix spokeswoman adds: "Helix is unaffected by the purchase. Concord's clients have requested that Helix continues to control their media buying, rather than Posterscope. So, it's business as usual for Helix and IPM."

Even though Rickard will only be a member of the Alban board, it is inevitable she will become involved in running the company. This will bring together two huge stalwarts of the outdoor industry.

Between Simmons and Rickard, who have both spent their entire careers working in outdoor, there is almost 50 years' worth of market experience.

However, this will be the first time they have batted for the same team.

"We've been rivals to date, and even though she'll be on the board, the rivalry will carry on in a funny way," Simmons says, underlining the independence of his company. Rickard adds: "I'm not sure about competition, but there will certainly be the same determination to succeed that we've both shown throughout our careers.

"Alan is a professional operator, and having been his competitor for so many years, I know all too well how effective he is in client relationships and how good he is at building and holding on to great teams. He's brought a new generation of people into the company in the past few years, who can go on to run it very successfully."

Outdoor industry insiders hold both Simmons and Rickard in high esteem and everyone questioned highlights their drive, determination and desire to succeed.

It is also widely believed that if the need arises, they will be able to work together very effectively. "They're both highly professional and have shared the same table on numerous occasions, so I'm sure they'll work well together," David Pugh, the managing director of Maiden Outdoor, says.

With Unilever's future up in the air and the imminent movement of the MediaCom business into Kinetic, it is early to tell what effect this deal will have on the market or, indeed, if it will be a success.

"This deal gives Concord the scale to invest and gives us a chance to share our resources with a successful company," Rickard says. "But don't forget, in the past three years, we've had 47 per cent cumulative growth, and this year we're up 27 per cent against a market growth of 9 per cent, so it doesn't all rest on this acquisition."