There is, to the really ardent enthusiast, a sort of poetry about a sequence of acquisition deals in a sector which results in the emergence of a company large enough and technically adroit enough to challenge not just the pre-existing market leaders but the way in which business is done by practitioners in the sector. The announcement this week of the purchase of Gorkana (formerly Durrants) by Cision, now enhanced by Vocus, gives me a frisson of this feeling. From the dawn of the great age of newspapers in the 1880s, getting things into them and measuring the results became a business in its own right, nowadays abbreviated to “PR”. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that, and the things placed could range from advertising to editorial briefing, and more media opportunities widened the scope, but in 1880 PR was hunch and artistry. When William Durrant and Henry Romeike formed their press clippings agency in that year and named it after the former (Romeike seceded to form his own) the measurement was needed to demonstrate, and no doubt sometimes defend, the campaign strategy. Today, as we know well from other sectors, the ability to measure, and then analyse, can easily become more important than the inspired hunch. While the latter lives on in the industry legend, planning an effective launch campaign is increasingly a desktop activity in the marketing department which once employed those wizard PR consultants. Automating workflow, introducing unprecedented levels of accuracy and comparability, adding software tools from predictive data analysis through to automated campaign booking tools, and we have a revolution in process. And it came not from the PR industry itself, but from its ancillary, mechanical component, the clippings agency. If we look at many other industries entering the digital age, this is very often the case.
But between 1880 and 2000, very little happened. In that year August Capital acquired Discovery Group, which contained Durrants,for £14m in an MBI and installed a strong team of ex-Thomson executives led by Steve White. I can recall my own initial visit, in what is now London’s white hot high tech Shoreditch, and seeing the long desks of clippers with their shears and piles of newspapers. Did they seek consultancy, I wondered, or the Last Rites? And then very quickly came the idea that if all of that clipping could be automated and made searchable very great things could be accomplished. I know less of the history of Cision (once Sweden’s Observer Group, who sold Romeike’s agency, ironically, back to Durrants in the post MBI period), but I suspect that they followed a similar trajectory. Under the CEO, Peter Granat, who has brought first Cision and then, earlier this year, Vocus, together in deals funded by the Chicago private equity player, GTCR, they have created a powerful technology base in the US in parallel to the UK development at Durrants. August Capital sold on to the British PE player Exponent, which enabled an acquisition programme which included buying aligned software players Metrica and Gorkana, and the renaming of the company after the latter. Exponent’s exit at £253m (according to MergerMarket – others say rather less) demonstrates the value added through these activities and looks to me like a X12 multiple at least.
So here is a very satisfying story for those of us who still believe in Progress. Three private equity houses have brought in appropriate technology and management, and at each stage have made acquisitions that added value. Bringing all three together in Chicago could well be transformative for the new group, and for the global industry within which they are embedded. Over time usage will move out of PR agencies and into end user corporate marketing, a vastly larger marketplace. As this begins to happen, so will GTCR be able to leverage its position and get the right exit price. I do not imagine that the major advertising and PR agencies will allow this process automation without an attempt to own it. WPP, through its Kantar data unit, already bought Precise Information as a way of testing the waters. WPP’s major competitors have aligned interests. How often have we seen this in the networked world? You own a very profitable media franchise. This becomes threatened by digital transformation. So you are forced to buy one of the disrupters. Then the legacy business declines. Then you can enjoy life again as the proprietor of a much smaller and slightly less printable business.
The story of Gorkana, however, is a good one. And the final credit should rest where it so seldom does, with the management. Steve White and his initial 2000 team and their successors were able to see where users wanted to be, as well as grasping the impact of transformative technology. While they had to contend with both the active and passive resistance of some of the players in the process (for instance, newspaper management were deeply suspicious of any attempt to database their content, for whatever purpose), they completely changed the mechanics and analytical output of an activity which had hardly changed during the previous 120 years. Reflect that while this work was going on the dimensions of media monitoring were widening all the time, and including web presence and then social media analysis. And reflect as well that the management of these companies started without a content-based intellectual property valuation – they owned none of the content that they analysed. In the information industry in particular it is important that we remember what people accomplish, as well as software.
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