Private equity activity in the creative and technology space continues to grow

Published

11 February 2020

Author

Jack Mehigan

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Private equity firms are becoming more focused on media and marcoms, not just from a technology standpoint but also for strategic communications. This is a key takeaway from SI Partners’ Global Acquirer Report, an assessment of the universe of buyers in the creative and technology sectors.

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When looking at creative and technology M&A, the majority of deals tend to involve ‘trade’ buyers. Historically, the traditional set of these trade buyers has been dominated by the major marketing groups like WPP and IPG but there has been a well-documented expansion to include newer groups like You & Mr Jones and, of course, consultancies in recent times. None more so than Accenture.

However, where the creative sectors diverge from many others is the notable lack of financial investors; that is, private equity and similar players. Buy-outs in the creative space have been few and far between in the past; particularly at the mid-market level.

What does the future hold for PE investment in the creative and tech sectors?

Increasingly, though, private equity has been moving into this space. For the bigger players, that’s often through a platform investment like Carlyle’s PA Consulting that bought digital agency Friday in 2018 or a direct investment; the latter being much more common for active mid-market players like Livingbridge and LDC who have invested in Brainlabs and Croud respectively to name a few.

On the face of it, there are some obvious reasons for PE to avoid creative firms, especially those that have a people-based offer. You can’t own people in the same way you can IP. You might have concerns over how to scale an asset from 50 people to 500 that you wouldn’t experience when expanding a product 10x. Also, revenue can often be lumpy (although that isn’t unique to creative companies).

On top of that, funds need to consider their exit. If a PE firm is looking to exit a majority stake, they’ll often struggle to find a trade buyer with appetite to cash them out on day one whilst also helping founders de-risk. Especially if looking to sell to new entrants like S4 Capital who prefer a structure with a 50:50 weighting of paper and cash.

All that being said, almost every article about PE in 2019 has mentioned the vast sums of ‘dry powder’ ready to be deployed across the globe. From what we are seeing, there is a lot of opportunity for the right business.

So, what kind of businesses are a viable target for this dry powder in private equity?

Firstly, profitability; PE is ultimately an industry that buys cash flows. Scale also matters and, unsurprisingly, growth is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Growth from scale means larger returns and so there is always going to be a threshold, tacit or otherwise, in a principal’s head in that respect. Finally, though, PE principals want to ensure they can exit in a timely manner and, so, the right capability set is crucial.

Simplistically, PE wants to invest in what trade will buy in a few years’ time. They look at the likes of Accenture and Wipro to guide them on what is or will be saleable. It’s why they talk to sector specialists like SI Partners too.

That’s also why we are seeing a lot of PE interest in strategic comms, digital capabilities and anything that is CEO-facing. According to one industry source, private equity principals are seeing increased enthusiasm for creative firms that can stand out from the pack due to “the re-emergence of branding over narrative-led communication”.

What, then, does the future hold for the creative and tech sectors? A PE principal in our network expects them to be “an area of focus for the PE industry some years ahead given the growth and innovation in this space”. We agree.

Download Global Acquirer Report

 

SI Partners Global Acquirer Report discusses the findings from interviews with 300 senior decision makers worldwide, detailing acquirer aspirations for 2020, what capabilities they are seeking, which regions they are targeting acquisitions, and expected levels of M&A activity.  Download the report for the full findings of each of the seven buyer groups active in the creative and technology M&A landscape.