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NEWS1 August 2019

‘We’re looking forward to getting back into acquisitions’: Eric Salama

M&A News

Following the announcement of WPP’s sale of 60% of Kantar to US private equity firm Bain Capital, Research Live spoke to Kantar chief executive Eric Salama to find out what this means for the company.

It’s a huge change – what are your biggest priorities in the immediate future?

It’s a huge change and it isn’t a huge change, in the sense that we’ve been on a strategy for a while and that isn’t fundamentally changing. The strategy is about automating more, delivering more real-time and predictive insights and data to our clients, understanding people at scale around the world, combining what people are doing with why they’re doing it and introducing self-service tools like Marketplace. The strategy isn’t changing – what’s changing is the environment we’re working in and our ability to do all of the above at a faster pace and with greater impact.

The biggest priority is to keep delivering to clients and keep on going during the year. We can’t let up in any kind of way. 

Within the organisation, there’s a fair amount of excitement and anticipation about the change so we need to tap into that. And we need to actually close the transaction – it’s not going to close for a few months yet and there’s quite a lot of work to do.

What does that process involve? Kantar is being removed from the wider WPP group and placed into a holding structure before the deal is completed – what does that look like in practice?

In many markets, we’ve been part of the same legal structure as other parts of WPP and we need to separate ourselves. We’re pretty self-sufficient already – everything we do around clients and HR, we’ve got our own systems, sales teams and client service teams so we’re not reliant on WPP. But there are some areas where, as a standalone company, we need our own capabilities, for example tax and treasury.

There are a few places around the world where WPP is in the process of buying the business back from partners; the most obvious one was Australia and New Zealand, where we were part of a WPP Australia and New Zealand corporate structure. There needs to be a conversation between WPP and WPP in Australia and New Zealand to agree a deal and then for shareholders to vote on it. So there’s lots of stuff to do to just get us from where we are to being a totally standalone entity.

What’s your strategy in the long-term, once the deal has been completed – from next year onwards?

It’s where I started – the ambition is to deliver human understanding at scale so to really understand what people are doing, why they’re doing it and helping clients figure out the implications of that. That leads into lots of areas – automating; using AI to be more predictive and real-time and enabling clients to get insights they couldn’t before; fusing behavioural data and survey data. There’s a whole bunch of things we’re moving towards. All of that has been rolled out somewhere across the Kantar universe and it’s a matter of rolling it out faster everywhere so that all of our clients benefit from it around the world.

Will there be any restructuring of Kantar as a result of the sale?

No, there’s no change. We’ve gone through change – gradually we’ve come down to one single Kantar brand as a go-to-market approach, so that changed the way we approach things. There’s stuff that happens the whole time but there’s nothing changing as a result of this transaction.

Bain has said it wants to invest in technology to expand Kantar. You’ve mentioned the areas you’ll be looking to focus on. Will Kantar be looking to make more acquisitions to support those areas?

We’re aligned in terms of what the plan is. It’s not like they have one point of view and we have a different one. We’ve spent a long time working together to get to this point, and we have a shared understanding of what needs to change and where we want to invest.

Some of that is organic, in terms of investing a lot more in technology. From an acquisition point of view, WPP has stated publicly that it’s got $200m for acquisitions and our share of that would be $30m or $40m. We really haven’t done any acquisitions within WPP for the best part of two years, so we’re looking forward to getting back into the acquisitions market, and you can guess the areas that are of interest to us – behavioural data, social media, e-commerce, analytics, certain technologies that we feel we need to have as opposed to licensing.

I won’t name individual companies, but you should expect us to be much more active on the acquisition front, and I think we’re a really good partner for companies that have great things and want to partner with someone to help them scale.

How have clients responded to the sale?

I haven’t had any negative feedback. I think clients get why we’re doing it, and their reaction has either been neutral or positive. But from a client point of view, they don’t really care about our ownership, what they care about is what we’re delivering. The proof is in the pudding, and the next test is going to come in the next few years in terms of whether or not we deliver what we believe we can, faster and better in a new ownership structure.

How is your role affected?

My reporting line changes – I don’t report in to WPP, I report in to, and am part of, a board controlled by Bain Capital, so the people with whom I’m discussing things like acquisitions and investment switch. WPP still has a 40% stake but it’s not actively managing the business – the control of the business is with Bain. It changes who I interact with from an upward reporting point of view; it doesn’t really change anything else.

Do you expect we’ll see more private equity investment in the insights industry in future?

A number of the big players are owned by private equity and I think what that tells you is that the industry overall is going through a lot of change and that the big players need to change the way they do business to have client impact and be as successful as they should be.

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