Softly, softly… is it time for the sleeping giants of the Far East to move?

Partners at Green Square, Corporate Finance Advisors to the media and marketing sector, cast their eyes over the latest industry deals and look ahead to the next tranche of acquisitions.

Cheil Worldwide is, like its bigger Japanese cousin Dentsu, one of those sleeping Far Eastern giants which, though dominant on its home turf for decades, has never really made much of an impact on the outside world. Until recently.

Dentsu’s multi-billion-dollar acquisition of the Aegis network last year made headlines, of course, and its certain that the group will make further acquisitions in the Occident in order to extend its reach and scale, but what of Cheil?

Since moving here in 2007, and making a big splash when it bought a stake in highly-rated indie Beattie McGuinness Bungay the following year, it has been quite quiet – apart from last year, when it converted its BMB stake from a minority to a majority holding.

But Cheil’s just done it again. This week it bought a “significant” stake in Iris Worldwide, the London-based digital network. Details of the deal (including whether or not it wants a majority or 100 per cent stake at some point) weren’t disclosed, but it’s thought to be £15m. At the same time, US publishing and broadcasting giant Meredith (owner of the likes of Ladies’ Home Journal as well as 15 TV stations) sold its minority 20 per cent stake in Iris. Whether or not this was directly to Cheil, or back to Iris’ management, nobody seems sure.

But it’s a good acquisition for Cheil. Iris is one of the very last independents of any scale left anywhere in Europe. It reported revenues of £75.5m last year and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of £6.5m.

Cheil’s approach to M&A is interesting, and perhaps lies in its roots. The agency, South Korea’s biggest (and the world’s 15th largest by revenues, according to the US journal AdAge), was set up in 1973 by Lee Byung-chul, the man who founded Samsung. For years it functioned as Samsung’s in-house marketing agency, creating print and TV ads, and conducting the first in-depth market research ever undertaken in the country.

As Samsung has risen over the past 40 years, from being a local operator to becoming the world’s largest consumer electronics company (as well as a major player in heavy industry, aerospace, telecoms, medicine, chemicals and textiles), so Cheil has extended both its geographic reach and the depth of its offer. It now operates in 35 countries, including the UK, US, Malaysia, China and Japan. This is a wise move, because although it has work from one of the world’s biggest companies virtually assured, it’s never a good idea to be over-reliant on one client (ironically enough, Iris, BMB and McKinney, a US agency Cheil bought in 2012 for $50m, all do work for Samsung – and in an added twist, Cheil actually lost some Samsung accounts to Iris a few months ago!).

In most cases Cheil has grown slowly, carefully and organically, acquiring equity in steps rather than outright – as it did with BMB. This is – providing you can think long term and have strong nerves – a good way of doing things. First of all, you’re never over-leveraged, and it’s unlikely that you’ll overpay. Second, once you have a foot in the door it is not so easy for another acquirer to get in on the act and third (and perhaps most importantly), you get to understand the people, culture, clients and working methods of the company you are hopefully going to acquire in full at some point. I guess the best analogy is moving in with someone before committing to marriage: in theory at least, it’s easier to extricate yourself if things don’t work out, even if you have to give the DVDs and the sofa back.

However, the really interesting thing is that the Iris deal in itself is not as significant as the wider trend it represents – and that’s previously little-known big agencies from the Far East moving into the West.

There’s Cheil and Dentsu (itself busy this month, snapping up London-based mobile specialist Fetch Media for an eye-watering $48m), but also Blue Focus, one of China’s biggest marketing services groups, which acquired 19.8 per cent of Huntsworth and bought London shop We Are social.

On top of this, and a relative newcomer to the scene, is Japan’s Cross Marketing Group, which last week bought the highly-rated, and one of the worlds largest independent market research companies, Kadence International in a deal handled by us at Green Square.

Also sniffing around these shores are Japan’s internet services giant Rakuten (often described as an “Internet shopping mall” and owner of play.com among scores of others); and Hakuhodo DY Holdings, the Japanese advertising and PR behemoth.

What they all represent is a challenge to the marcomms status quo, which has for two decades been dominated by European and US-headquarted groups like WPP, Publicis, Omnicom and IPG. It’s too early of course, to see whether any of these can ever overturn that status quo, but they having been setting up beach-heads all over the West, been spending carefully (but big) and are demonstrating a determination to do things their way.

This determination to do things differently could make them more attractive to clients concerned about what they see as lack of new ideas about how to cope in a fast-moving environment, and also to start-ups who might feel more comfortable about stepping into bed with an upstart outsider than one of the established groups. Let’s not forget the fact that a group as big as Dentsu or Cheil being seen as an “underdog” is a demonstration of just how powerful and established the likes of WPP and Publicis are.

Could 2015 be the year that the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese start arriving in numbers? It could well be.

Tony Walford is a partner at Green Square, corporate finance advisors to the media and marketing sector

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