The current campaign by Manchester-based Love to scotch rumours of its own apparent takeover is, in many ways, simply fuelling the circulating speculation that BDH\\TBWA is poised to buy them out, or are at least seriously considering it.
“Not for Sale!”, screams Love, in a coy display of faux virtue, whilst simultaneously directing browsers on their website to a concocted display of office bric-a-brac that is for sale. Cute. But whilst the lady doth protest too much, the rumour mill continues to churn, and even though Love’s handling of this goofy crisis has been nothing less than astute, some of their seasoned colleagues in the industry are counselling Love to drop the gamesmanship, arguing that keeping the takeover rumour circulating can destabilise the company in the longer term.
Carl Hopkins, former managing director of JDA is one who thinks Love might have enhanced their position by issuing a straightforward denial, rather than embarking on a themed PR campaign.
“Having suffered it myself, the one thing I asked of all parties concerned is to kept the staff informed,” he says.
“If there is an element of truth in it, it leaks out, gets disseminated, and pushed back into the business. If information isn’t offered, it is my experience that staff and/or bystanders are willing to fill the gaps, and they never fill the gaps with good news or good information.”
The manner of Love’s denial propaganda could be seen as falling into the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ school of thought. But tell that to Northern Rock. Hopkins argues that prolonging the rumours through marketing will only encourage further destabilising talk, which could otherwise be lanced with a more straightforward approach.
“To tell staff or clients ‘we are subject to a rumour’ is often better than saying nothing,” he says.
“Speculation does more damage than good. Unless you have all the information, people make stuff up, and they never make up good stuff.
“Staff can see a potential acquisition as a distraction from their employment, or the service they are being offered if they are a client. It is very difficult to counter the rumour mill. All businesses are subject to approaches to be acquired; why pretend otherwise?”
Alistair Sim, managing director of Love agrees that there is a risk attached to engaging in what is, on the face of it, only harmless PR, denying that Love themselves were involved in originating the takeover speculation.
“Yes, those kind of rumours can be destabilising. Companies sometimes instigate these things themselves, but you would have to be pretty foolish to do that; it can backfire on you,” he says.
“We are PR savvy people here, and know what makes good PR and bad PR. We made the decision to counter the rumours, when our clients are asking us out of genuine concern. You have to bear in mind that we are signing contracts with clients whose disclosure terms would bind us to letting them know if we were going to sell a certain percentage of the company. There is a very serious side to this.”
Robert Harwood-Matthews, chief executive of BDH, the agency rumoured to be interested in acquiring Love, also stepped in to firmly deny any interest in taking over the Manchester-based agency
“We are not on the acquisition trail,” he said. “And no, we’re not moving to the Northern Quarter.” Which all seems pretty definitive; except that Sim claims insiders at BDH have reason to believe the opposite is the case.
“It appears that the staff at the agency in question have actually been told they are buying us, which is crazy,” he said. The plot thins, however, as Harwood-Matthews himself could not be less equivocal in his rebuttal of responsibility for starting the rumours.
“It’s cobblers,” he says. “I’ve got nothing but admiration for Love. Creatively, they’re a very interesting agency. I like their work and I like the people there. We have a very different client base and do very different work, so there’s no reason why I would want to destabilise them or their relationship with clients.
“I’m a great believer in the idea that if a number of agencies are doing well, it is for the good of the scene. We need people, like Love, out there and firing on all cylinders. That’s what makes the top talent look to Manchester and what attracts clients to take the scene more seriously. What doesn’t help is for agencies [in the same region] to be seen getting into these kind of squabbles.”
Whilst the originators of the takeover talk remain safely anonymous, Sim seems certain that a rival agency is behind it, which is already having a negative impact on his business.
“The agency that stared the rumour actually contacted our clients and told them they are buying us, which can be fairly destabilising,” he says.
“It leaves us in a sticky situation when the question is asked, and we have to defend our integrity. It could be another agency trying to do destabilising work. It is part for the course in our industry, though.”
Despite the talk of instability, Sim and Love seem largely unperturbed sitting at the centre of the storm, and have won the admiration of PR agencies for capitalising on the takeover talk, and spinning it to their best advantage.
“It sounds to me like Alistair is taking full control of the situation, and I can’t blame him,” Nigel Hughes, managing director of Rattle PR tells The Drum.
“Whether or not it was worth it or not will be down to whether they have got any new clients out of it. That campaign says to me, ‘what a creative bunch with a good sense of humour’,”
“If he was interested in selling, then all of this recent stuff is not going to have devalued the company, is it?”
Nathalie Bagnall, managing director of Vertigo PR, agrees that all the talk circulating within the industry is unlikely to impact negatively on the agency, or necessarily even reach the ears of client companies.
“Alistair is a very astute PR man. To have BDH come calling is a huge boost to any agency. Everybody knows that Love could be ripe for a sale,” she says.
“Clients don’t tend to read the press or listen to the rumours. I don’t think they will be scared off by a possible sale or merger on the cards,”
However, Bagnall does agree that Love’s tactic of playing the PR game will only invite further speculation, rather than quashing it. “I do think it is interesting that Love put an ad in the press. It is like saying “Chase Me!” she says.