Cannes Briefing: Investment bankers and private equity firms turn up en masse — ‘Here to hunt’

Digiday covers the latest from marketing and media at the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. More from the series →

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In all his years of coming to Cannes, ad veteran and CEO of the BrandTech Group, David Jones, has never had investor meetings. This year, that’s a whole different story. He’s got two on the books, but it could’ve been 20.

“The presence is huge this year,” said Jones. 

And he’s not kidding. 

Under the French Riviera sun, a swarm of investment banks, private equity firms and hedge funds have descended upon the four-day Cannes Lions festival. Their mission? To carve out and finance the next big advertising and media deals at the industry’s most celebrated event.

“These execs are here to hunt,” said Bruce Biegel, senior managing partner at Winterberry Group.

Among them are investment banks like JP Morgan and Luma, alongside private equity players like Shamrock Capital, Apollo, GTCR, Idecapital, Progress Partners, New Mountain Capital, Landmark Ventures, Carlyle Group, and JEGI Clarity. Then there are hybrid firms like FirstPartyCapital, a group based in London that has raised $11 million to date, with a further $3 million deployed through its syndicate.

Add it all up, and it’s a presence that could keep corporate development execs busy for the rest of the year.

“They’re all having a lot of conversations on the sidelines about what they might do for the second half of the year and maybe the first half of next,” said Biegel.

For the investment bankers here, those conversations are about selling companies for clients. In fact, the CEO of an ad tech startup told Digiday they had two meetings scheduled with these bankers over the week. On the flip side, private equity investors are chatting with execs in the south of France, hunting for smart investment opportunities.

“Private equity has always been a voracious buyer of ad tech,: said Ciaran O’Kane, general partner at FirstPartyCapital. Over the past four years, nearly 40% of all tech deals in Europe were done by private equity shops.  We only see that trend accelerating.”

This trend will continue for two reasons, according to O’Kane: “First, private equity are natural buyers for profitable ad tech companies. Second, they’re poised to take undervalued public ad tech companies private, which is a hot topic on the Cannes yachts this year.”

Like checking out a potential in-law… 

In terms of dealmaking or prospecting at the Cannes Lions conference, sources pointed to the unique dynamics of the marquee trade conference, which attracts tens of thousands of ad industry delegates each year, which can either spike or spur a deal.  

“We know there’s a lot of venture capitalists that go there, and that drives a lot of corp. dev activity, but you don’t see yachts with PE fund banners on them; they’re there to blend in,” said Shailin Dhar of Futureprood TMT, an industry expert who advises on such M&A activity. 

“If you’re scoping out potential acquisitions, you don’t just want to see leadership teams in isolation in their offices; you want to see how they interact with the market and how people respond to their presence,” he added. “It’s like a father spending a weekend with his future son-in-law to see what kind of a person he is and what decisions he makes.”    

Even so, these dealmakers keep a lower profile than the rest of the Cannes crowd, with its cacophony of lavish parties, high-profile press conferences, and showboating.

“As someone who came from that [investment] community, its presence here is definitely more notable than previous years,” said former investment analyst Michael Beebe, who is now CEO Dstillery, an AI-based audience data and targeting technology company. “I’ve seen a lot of faces who I know from that world this week.” 

Trends in recent dealmaking

In the ad tech sector, in particular, recent dealmaking activity points to three underlying trends: the desire to maintain audience addressability amid heightened privacy requirements, establishing a beachhead in emerging formats such as CTV or outdoor, and plain old land grabs in new geographical markets.

Earlier this week, Mozilla announced the purchase of Anonym (the transaction fee was not publicly disclosed). The provider of the Firefox web browser claimed the “strategic acquisition” was aimed at enhancing user privacy while delivering relevant ads. A day later(June 18), Verve Group agreed to acquire mobile ad company Jun Group for $185 million. 

Meanwhile, Adweek also reported that 33Across, an ad tech firm whose raison d’etre is to help media buyers with contextual targeting – a key challenge in the digital marketing sector as cookies are gradually retired – is also positioning itself for sale. 

June also saw the announcement that CTV firm Madhive has acquired Frequence to offer clients more granular cross-channel advertising offerings, focusing on local media markets. Again, the deal amount was not publicly disclosed.

Put simply, the deal market is heating up. 

With borrowing costs dropping and pressure to deploy funds or lose them, there’s business to be done. Add to that a slew of companies on either defense or offense, trying to navigate the current advertising and media landscape. More often than not, striking the right deal is the only way these businesses can get ahead of the unpredictable consequences of both perceived misfortune and good fortune.

Digiday Cannes Lions 2024 video studio

As threatening thunderstorms, buffeting gusts and the rolling Lions award wins made the swirl of the third day of Cannes Lions 2024 especially dramatic, Digiday’s video studio at the Blockboard villa featured interviews with four important CMOs making time to pause with us amid their jam-packed schedules.

We spoke with Jenny Lewis, CMO of The Knot, Jim Mollica, CMO of Bose, Mark Kirkham, CMO, PepsiCo international beverages, and Michael Lacorazza, CMO, US Bank. The key discussion topics ranged from the importance of strategic partnerships, the early days of generative AI as an emotional marketing tool at the beginning of its scale, the ascendance of sports fandom as an intensely powerful driver of customer engagement with brand product — and, finally, the importance of being remaining brand mindful in all of this mad dash into the future. — Jim Cooper and Sara Jerde

Jenny Lewis, CMO, The Knot

Jim Mollica, CMO of Bose

Mark Kirkham, CMO, PepsiCo international beverages

Michael Lacorazza, CMO, US Bank

Publishers at Cannes chase ad dollars surrounding women’s sports 

Media businesses are hoping to capitalize on the excitement around women’s sports in Cannes — and it’s not just traditional sports publishers hoping to get in on the action.

Jason Wagenheim, CEO, North America of FootballCo, is pitching the soccer publisher’s women’s brand, Indivisa, this summer, which just had a social relaunch. “We’ll be talking a lot about the women’s sports opportunity … as lots of marketers are making big investments in the category,” he said.

Even media companies that are not traditionally sports publishers are getting in on the action. 

Axios hosted a Women’s Sports House in Cannes with Deep Blue Sports + Entertainment for three days this year featuring programming with names like The New York Times, Ulta Beauty and X.

“There’s an incredible amount of brand and marketing focus within the broader women’s sports arena right now, and so ensuring that we have programming associated with this and ability to convene the right audience that’s there, we felt like it was the right time to do it,” said Jonathan Otto, gm of Axios Live.

Lindsey Abramo, CEO of World of Good Brands, is highlighting Well + Good’s coverage of women in sports this year at Cannes. “We hope to have a footprint in Q4 [around women in sports], but definitely moving into a larger, evergreen presence and ownership stake for Well + Good in [2025],” said Abramo.

There have been new products around the category as well — star athletes Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe, partnered with Vox Media to relaunch their podcast, A Touch More Live.

“We’re seeing [an uptick in advertiser interest in women’s sports] across the board,” said Geoff Schiller, CRO of Vox Media. “Beauty brands, retail brands, not [just] those sort of handful of brands that have been in the space for at least the last three, four years.” — Kayleigh Barber

Elsewhere from Cannes

Overheard

“My 15 year-old is interning with us. She wants to work in investment relations and we just went public.” — Overheard along the Croisette

“He’s taller than I thought.” — Overheard from Sports Beach, where Elon Musk was spotted

“Taylor Swift is in Cannes, but is currently living her best life on a yacht.” — Overheard on the bus to the Axios Villa

“Please leave as quickly as possible.” — Meta Beach employee, to two festival goers who were taking selfies by the drinks station, ignoring Meta staff who closed down the beach amid high winds

What to do

11:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Pinterest vp of global creative Xanthe Wells leads a discussion with Oscar-winning production designers behind ‘Poor Things’, Shona Heath and James Price, on the creative process building the set at Debussy Theatre, The Palais.

12:45 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. Former Chief Creative Officer, God-is Rivera explores how to create roles that never existed at Atelier, Rotonde.

3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. X CEO Linda Yaccarnio joins “MrBeast” to talk creators and platforms at Terrace Stage, The Terrace.

Nightcap

5 p.m. to 7 p.m. England vs Denmark UEFA Euro Viewing at Reddit Headquarters.

7 p.m. to 9 p.m. 2024 Lion winners will be announced including the Luxury and Lifestyle Lions. Tonight’s awards include Brand Experience & Activation Lions, Creative Business Transformation Lions, Creative Commerce Lions, Creative Effectiveness Lions, Creative Strategy Lions, Innovation Lions and Luxury and Lifestyle Lions at Lumiere Theatre, The Palais.

10 p.m. Havas KCPK Party at Havas Cafe.

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