Paying for performance: Dentsu picks up its M&A pace 

Contact: Scott Denne 

Dentsu hasn’t been very active in acquiring digital marketing shops until recently. Now, as it sees an opening with marketers looking to change how they compensate their agency partners, it is moving fast to take advantage. The company announced today the purchase of India-based SVG Media Group, the latest in a string of deals it has made to expand its performance advertising capabilities.

According to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase, Dentsu has acquired 29 companies since the start of 2016. That’s the same number of tech businesses it bought in the previous 13 years combined. A combination of rising ad fraud and displeasure at opaque agency billing practices, mixed with the growing ability to link media spending to specific outcomes, has marketers rethinking how they pay ad agencies. They are placing more emphasis on performance-based pricing models, a notable departure from the historic practice of paying agencies a percentage of advertising budgets.

SVG Media fits into this role, as it sells pay-for-performance media services and ad networks. Earlier this month, SVG reached for conversion optimizer Leapfrog Online and customer analytics firm DIVISADERO, a bolt-on to the $920m it spent last year to snag CRM agency Merkle.

Although Dentsu may be an extreme case, it is part of an overall rise in acquisitions of digital agencies. Last year saw a record 164 digital agencies acquired. The pace so far this year is a bit below that, but well ahead of any other year. The drive for performance-focused digital marketing accounts for a substantial chunk of that upswing, although there are other factors such as the lack of mobile specialists and the movement of ad spending toward digital channels. Dentsu and other ad agencies aren’t the only buyers here. Consulting firms like Accenture and IBM have been inking acquisitions to capitalize on the same weakness.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

E-commerce’s discounted disruptors

Contact: Brenon Daly 

For the second time in as many weeks, a would-be digital disruptor of the commerce world has been snapped up on the cheap by an analogue antecedent. After the closing bell on Monday, sprawling marketing giant Harland Clarke Holdings, the owner of a number of advertising flyers that clutter postal boxes and newspapers, said it would pay $630m for online coupon site RetailMeNot. The amount is just one-quarter the price Wall Street had put on the company three years ago.

The markdown on RetailMeNot comes just days after Samsonite gobbled up eBags, a dot-com survivor that nonetheless sold for a paltry multiple. The $105m acquisition is supposed to help the world’s largest maker of luggage sell directly to consumers. Samonsite, which traces its roots back more than a century, certainly didn’t overpay for that digital know-how. Its purchase values eBags at just 0.7x trailing sales.

While a bit richer, RetailMeNot is still only valued at 2.25x trailing sales and 2x forecast sales in the bid from Harland Clarke. And that’s for a sizable company that’s growing in the low-teens range (eBags is about half the size of RetailMeNot but is growing at twice that rate). The valuations paid by the old-world acquirers of both of these online retail startups were clearly shaped more by the staid retail world than the supercharged multiples generally paid for online assets. It’s a reminder, once again, that disruption – that clichéd goal of much of Silicon Valley – doesn’t necessarily generate value. Sometimes trying to knock a market on its head just gives everyone involved a headache.

What happened to Alphabet’s M&A bets?

Contact: Brenon Daly

As part of an effort to provide more strategic focus as well as financial transparency, Google reorganized and renamed itself Alphabet last October. In the half-year since that change, the company has lived up to the ‘alpha’ part of its new moniker, handily outperforming the Nasdaq, which is flat for the period. But when it comes to ‘bet,’ it hasn’t been placing nearly as many M&A wagers as it used to.

So far in 2016, the once-prolific buyer has announced just two acquisitions, according to 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase. That’s down substantially from the average of six purchases that Google/Alphabet has announced during the same period in each of the years over the past half-decade. (Nor do we expect this year’s totals to be bumped up by Google buying Yahoo, as has been rumored. That pairing would roughly be the sporting world’s equivalent of the Golden State Warriors nabbing the Los Angeles Lakers.)

The ‘alpha’ part of Alphabet is, of course, the Google Internet business, which includes the money-minting search engine, YouTube, Android and other digital units. This division generates virtually all of the overall company’s revenue and is the primary reason why Alphabet is the second-most-valuable tech vendor in the world, with a market cap of over a half-trillion dollars. For more on the company’s progress in dominating the digital world, tune in on Thursday for its Q1 financial report and forecast.

Google/Alphabet M&A

Period Number of announced transactions
January 1-April 18, 2016 2
January 1-April 18, 2015 6
January 1-April 18, 2014 8
January 1-April 18, 2013 4
January 1-April 18, 2012 4
January 1-April 18, 2011 8

Source: 451 Research’s M&A KnowledgeBase

Come big, come small or don’t come at all

Contact:Scott Denne

In addition to a spirited defense of her tenure at Yahoo during this week’s earnings call, CEO Marissa Mayer laid out in detail the company’s acquisition strategy: buy big or buy small, no middle ground.

According to The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase, Yahoo has bought 46 companies since Mayer’s tenure began in July 2012, and all but eight of them have been pure talent acquisitions. On the call, the company said it has spent $1.6bn on those deals, with just two, Tumblr and Flurry, accounting for $1.3bn of that (Tumblr alone was $1.1bn). Only six other transactions brought Yahoo any tech or products.

The massive amount of talent tuck-ins (most of which are obviously in the single-digit millions or less) is a stark departure from the previous decade of Yahoo M&A, when the company purchased only 47 companies at a median price tag of $88.5m.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

At the Wall Street box office, Alibaba is a blockbuster

Contact: Brenon Daly

In Hollywood, a blockbuster debut that is expected to help support the release of other films around the same time is known as a ‘tentpole.’ And while that phenomenon may have also played out in the IPO business in the past, no one is expecting the Alibaba debut later this week to help prop up other offerings. Quite the opposite, in fact.

To understand why, think of Alibaba as Godzilla (the monster, not the movie). The Chinese e-commerce giant is looking to come to market – backed by no fewer than 20 investment banks – and create almost a Facebook-size valuation overnight. The sheer size of Alibaba’s record-setting offering of some 320 million shares at (currently) $68 each basically pushes other IPO candidates outside the awning of any Alibaba tentpole.

With Alibaba and its underwriters looking to place billions of dollars of equity, buyers are unlikely to step right back in to buy smaller-ticket tech IPOs. That means solid offerings that are in process, such as Cyber-Ark and HubSpot, may initially open a bit soft at the box office that is Wall Street.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

RTL Group latest to jump into video ad fray

Contact: Scott Denne

German broadcasting company RTL Group’s $144m pickup of SpotXchange pushes independent video ad exchanges to the brink of extinction. The programmatic video market is still in the early stages, but a series of acquisitions has left few independent players.

SpotXchange’s sale comes weeks after one of its closest competitors, LiveRail, was picked up by Facebook, and a year after AOL bought Adap.tv, the early leader in programmatic video exchanges. RTL is taking a 65% stake in the business (valuing the company at $221m), with an option to buy the rest plus a performance-based earnout. We believe SpotXchange has trailing revenue of $40-50m, which would give this deal a multiple that’s in line with those transactions.

This acquisition leaves BrightRoll as the only remaining independent video exchange with substantial scale, and that company (which is a combination of video ad network and exchange) is several times larger than SpotXchange in terms of revenue and would be an expensive purchase.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Google ups premium video play with mDialog buy

Contact: Scott Denne

ABC, CBS and their peers can’t be expected to dump their primetime lineups onto YouTube alongside cat videos and ukulele covers of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ That’s why Google’s premium video efforts are built around DoubleClick, including the just-announced acquisition of mDialog, a maker of ad-insertion technology for long-form and live-streaming video, which will support DoubleClick’s efforts to build an ad exchange for premium video.

Through owning YouTube, Google led the first phase of online video: short clips, occasionally pirated and often user-generated. Owning the second phase, as traditional television (not to mention traditional television advertising dollars) goes digital, will take a new technology stack as well as relationships with a new set of advertisers and content creators.

Google is not the only company to recognize the need for new teams and technologies to accompany this latest phase. For example, Comcast picked up FreeWheel Media in March to provide traditional media companies with services and software to monetize and manage their digital video. And last month, Kaltura, a maker of video editing, streaming and management software, bought over-the-top video specialist Tvinci in a deal that was as much about the target’s relationships with broadcasters as it was about its technology.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Amobee moves past mobile

Contact: Scott Denne

Amobee’s pair of acquisitions today shows a dramatic increase in the mobile ad network’s ambitions since becoming a subsidiary of SingTel in late 2012. The purchases of Adconion and Kontera for a combined $359m take Amobee beyond offering mobile advertising products and into selling advertisers the capability to reach their intended audience across digital mediums.

The pickup of Adconion brings Amobee the ability to send targeted ads to individuals across different ad channels (mobile, video, display, social, etc.) It also didn’t hurt that most of the target’s $185m in 2013 revenue came from North America, giving Amobee an instantly larger footprint in that market (about 40% of Amobee’s revenue comes from Asia). With Kontera, Amobee obtains technology that improves contextual understanding of where and how ads are placed on the Web and mobile devices.

These deals stand in contrast to Amobee’s only two previous acquisitions, which were mobile-focused technology tuck-ins (Gradient X and Adjitsu.com). The increasing importance of audience-specific, rather than channel-specific, digital media is a trend that’s playing out across the ad-tech industry as advertisers seek to optimize interactions with target audiences, rather than experiment with individual ad channels.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Google’s recent acquisitions go back to its roots

Contact: Scott Denne

With Google’s announcement that it has picked up Adometry and its purchase in February of spider.io, the search giant has now made two acquisitions in support of its core business. The deals come after a nearly three-year hiatus from buying advertising companies. Its last announced advertising acquisition was the purchase of online exchange AdMeld in June 2011.

The recent transactions come as Google faces a slowdown in part of its ad business. Advertising revenue on Google’s own websites grew 20% in 2013 to $37.45bn, but sales from its ad networks and exchanges decelerated. That revenue was up only 5% to $13.13bn in 2013, compared with a 20% rise the year earlier, while already thin gross margins tightened during those years.

Adometry sells advertising attribution services that could boost Google’s network revenue by helping advertisers understand which ads help move prospects closer to a purchase, rather than giving all the credit to the last ad a customer clicks. It could also help Google attract more brand advertisers to its properties and networks, in addition to the direct-response advertisers that are drawn to Google’s pay-per-click model.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.

Today NYSE, tomorrow NBC

Contact: Scott Denne

Twitter harbors ambitions of being a force in both online video and traditional television. Now that the distraction of an IPO is behind it, we expect the company to focus its dealmaking efforts on video advertising technology.

Twitter’s audience isn’t growing as fast as it once was, and to ensure that its revenue growth rate doesn’t slow, it needs to squeeze more revenue from its audience. That was the rationale behind picking up MoPub, which will help Twitter build programmatic features into its own platform and serve as a gateway to the mobile ad market. A video ad firm would enable it to monetize Vine, extend into the growing online video ad space and, most important, grab a piece of the TV ad sector (which still dwarfs the entire digital ad market) by bringing those dollars into its own platform and helping spread them to other places on the Internet by enabling advertisers to follow an audience beyond the living room.

Talent and technology have been the guideposts for Twitter’s past acquisitions, and there’s no reason to think that would change. (The same principles shape the company’s organic growth, as it spends a whopping 40% of its revenue on R&D.) Along those lines, potential targets that would be a good fit are BrightRoll, TubeMogul or even a smaller, emerging video ad provider.

While much of BrightRoll’s business comes from its video ad network, it also operates a video ad exchange, which is similar to what MoPub does in the mobile market. We understand the business has about $240m in annual revenue, so it would be a big bite. TubeMogul sits on the other side of the ad tech table, selling a platform to advertisers to distribute video ads across real-time exchanges, making it a potential complement to MoPub. In addition, it doesn’t come with the ad network baggage, making it a more attractive target for Twitter. TubeMogul also has substantial revenue of its own, bringing in $54m last year and likely well over $100m this year, all with profit margins that are far above the norm in ad tech, according to our sources.

There’s also a handful of emerging players that would likely require less of a capital commitment and could impact Twitter’s efforts in this space. For example, firms like Spongecell and Vungle would bring creative talent, as well as tech. Another possibility is StickyADS.tv, a Paris-based company that would bring Twitter video ad technology as well as a deeper presence in Europe, potentially helping it with low spending among advertisers outside the US.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @451TechMnA.