Kantar CEO on how a private equity sale will help deliver speed and scale for clients

WPP announced plans to sell off the research and consulting arm last year

Kantar has unveiled a suite of new AI tools designed to help brands better build and measure global campaigns, an investment its chief executive Eric Salama said squares with his vision for a faster, more technology-driven business post-sale.

WPP announced plans to sell off the research and consulting arm last year. Though the ad giant's chief executive Mark Read has said it will retain between a “25% to 40%” stake in the business, Salama confirmed to The Drum that it was currently in talks with several private equity companies who were interested in majority ownership, and that it would be able to share more “in the next few weeks”.

“It’s all private equity companies we’re talking to, we’re not talking to any strategic buyers. We’re not talking to Accenture or Nielsen or any company like that. So [the buyer will be] a private equity company,” Salama said.

Suggesting that talks were underway with one particular buyer, Salama added: “We’ve engaged with them and we’re right in the middle of that process in the moment. We’ve got to know them pretty well and they’re people who share an ambition for growth. They want to grow Kantar and scale it and they want to make it a much more tech-driven business in every aspect.”

Salama stopped short of naming interested parties, but a separate source with knowledge of the matter told The Drum that Bain, Apollo, Platinum and Vista have been circling the business.

Earlier this year, Kantar consolidated all of its individual brands and services into its flagship brand, retiring silos like Kantar Media, Kantar Millward Brown, Lightspeed and Kantar Worldpanel, as well as all of its country-specific brands.

Now as it primes for a sale it has doubled down on its AI capabilities, investing in new features for clients it claims will help them “more efficiently and accurately build and measure campaigns that have a global impact”.

These new tools, launched during Cannes Lions include ‘context lab’, which helps clients plan media by showcasing how content performs in different environments before it goes live, as well as something it’s calling 'enhanced visual analytics', a service that analyses millions of social media images to let advertisers see how their brands are being photographed and filmed by people on platforms like Instagram.

Elsewhere, ‘creative transport’ forecasts how well ads that have already launched in one geographical market will perform in other locales while ‘balanced attribution’ helps clients balance performance marketing with brand building by suggesting the best media channels for both.

The likes of Coca-Cola and Hulu have already been testing the features, with Coke saving up to 30% in production costs by using creative transport to repurpose creative executions.

Salama said the launch illustrates clearly how “innovation delivers meaningful impact” for clients across the whole marketing cycle.

Post-sale, he said, the focus will be on investing in technology that allows the business to work harder, better and faster for clients. And a private equity sale, he believes, will see Kantar’s own model and processes evolve faster.

“We’re headed in the same direction that we're going in at the moment, but we [want to] just go there much, much faster,” he explained.

“That means really infusing technology into all of the data and insights that we generate and making them much more real-time and much more predictive… we do that at the moment but it’s still a bit too clunky for my liking – we need to make that automated, faster, on a dashboard and in real-time.”

Saying the notion “private equity comes in and slashes everything” was “completely at odds” with the conversations he was engaged in, Salama said the buyer that Kantar is in talks with holds a “fundamental shared belief” in where his team want to take the business.

“There’s lots of things we can do in a private market setting,” he added, insisting the agility the sale would offer the business wasn’t predicated on breaking free from the fetters of a holding company.

“It’s not so much about [being part of a] holding company or not. WPP has said it’s got $200m for investment each year – we could consume three-times that in any given year just by ourselves and our share of that $200m just now would probably by $40m.

“So in terms of acquiring new capabilities, investing to scale things up and fusing technology – all of that is easier in the private market context with a different type of owner than it is when you’re a public company.”

When asked about the internal impact that would come with the change of hands, Salama wasn’t convinced there would be a big change in culture.

“Yes and no. Like any big public company, everything is a bit slower and more bureaucratic. Post-sale I hope that Kantar becomes a lot faster in terms of our decision making and that people are much more accountable for their decisions.

“I hope that we’ll be more empowered and empower people more. At one level I don’t think the culture will change, but at another level, we're [looking for] speed to get things done in a different way and faster.”

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