The abrupt exit of Ebiquity CEO Michael Karg earlier this week belies missed opportunities for the media measurement firm at a time when media measurement is in high demand.
The rationale for Karg’s departure was straightforward. After nearly four years at the helm of Ebiquity, he hadn’t grown the business as quickly as its shareholders wanted. When he arrived in January 2016, the company traded at 142p ($1.40) a share, when his exit was announced on Tuesday, its share price was 42p (49 cents). It’s a sharp decline in a short space of time, stoking fears among Ebiquity’s shareholders that the ad industry was leaving the measurement business behind at a time when it should be leading it.
“Ebiquity suffered a massive loss of shareholder value because it hadn’t evolved with the marketplace, particularly in digital,” said an Ebiquity shareholder on condition of anonymity.
The rush of advertisers questioning how their ads are bought was meant to be a lucrative trend for Ebiquity. Work came thick and fast for the audit arm of Ebiquity FirmDecisions, which checks whether agencies are delivering on their contracts for advertisers. Revenue was up 15% year over year in the first half of 2019. The largest part of the business, however, struggled to grow as fast. Revenue from Ebiquity’s media performance practice, which helps advertisers evaluate how their agencies buy ads, fell by 3% over the same period. The decline wasn’t what Ebiquity’s owners had expected, said the shareholder. They wanted to see a business that could use its fortuitous access to advertisers that are mandated to use an auditor to open up lucrative opportunities beyond media price benchmarking. Instead, the shareholders saw Ebiquity caught in the crossfire of the ad industry’s transparency crusade.
“Seventy-five percent of the revenue for Ebiquity is still coming mainly from media price benchmarking, which was developed for television, but the methodology for it hasn’t really changed with the move to digital,” said a former Ebiquity exec with knowledge of the company’s finances.
While media auditing delivered the cash for Ebiquity, it was under-resourced and lacked innovation. Profit made from media auditing was being used to offset the money the Advertising Intelligence business was hemorrhaging out until it was sold earlier this year, said the former Ebiquity exec.
“We were being asked to hit targets in the media auditing part of the business, but when we did, our bonuses were being withheld,” said the exec. “There wasn’t enough money to pay for the bonuses because the money that should’ve gone to us was being used to help balance the books.”
Karg wanted the business to move beyond auditing and into consulting to senior marketers, but there was little investment in people and systems to achieve this goal, and no clear strategy to effect the pivot. When Ebiquity attempted to launch a global tool that offered advertisers a like-for-like view of both cost and quality of their digital ads, it struggled because directors in other markets preferred their own, said the former Ebiquity exec. In many ways, the media auditing part of the business was a victim of its own success in the pre-digital age.
“Three years ago, there was no mention of digital media ever in any RFP for auditing, whereas now it’s the highest priority,” said one exec who works closely with Ebiquity on condition of anonymity. “If you’re a business that doesn’t have a credible answer to those briefs, then it’s difficult to grow quickly in the media auditing space.”
When a senior marketer at one global advertiser met with Ebiquity execs last year, they concluded the media measurement firm couldn’t help them audit their online media investments properly. The execs talked at length about how they could use the log-file data from agencies working with their advertiser clients to assess everything that happened to a programmatic bid up until the ad exchange. But as with all things programmatic, the devil is in the details.
“It became clear that what Ebiquity said it could do was different from what it could actually do,” said the senior marketer. “Ebiquity would have focused on tracking cost-per-thousand benchmarks for impressions as well as monitoring clusters of cost-per-acquisitions and cost-per-clicks. That’s fine for many clients, but those benchmarks don’t work in an auction that’s changing all the time. We picked a smaller, specialist company in the end.”
The concerns weren’t lost on Karg. Had his plan to sell the Advertising Intelligence business to Nielsen happened in the months after it was announced in February 2018, then he would have been able to reinvest the £26 million ($33.4 million) from the sale sooner, said an exec who worked with Karg. Instead, the deal was concluded nearly a year after it was announced.
“That protracted sale cost Michael a year because the sole purpose of that deal was to have funds to invest in acquiring business especially in digital,” said the exec. “Timing is always an issue with these sorts of deals, but that acquisition contributed to his downfall as there were no subsequent funds to move the business forward through M&A when the business was struggling in 2018.”
The company shrank by a third when it sold Advertising Intelligence in January and subsequently used the money to pay off debt. Advertising Intelligence was never replaced, so shareholders saw Ebiquity’s value shrink as a result. But acquisitions are on the horizon for Ebiquity, according to two separate sources with knowledge of its strategy.
“The type of consultancy that is in demand is becoming more focused on strategic advantage, growth and measurement,” said Scott Moorhead, CEO of media consultancy Aperto One. “Ebiquity have a huge foot print, and it needs to pivot quickly and use that advantage and stay relevant. It can if they are fast, brave and decisive enough.”
Karg is replaced by Alan Newman, Ebiquity’s chief financial and operating officer, on an interim basis. While Karg’s attempt to position the business as the CMO’s consigliere at a time when CMOs need it most has struggled to date, the building blocks to make it work are there. It has a credible marketing and analytics division that’s growing, a technology practice that is thriving, albeit from a small base, and a tighter network of offices, which were once disparate. Furthermore, the business has won new business as a result of Accenture focusing on agency services, including Unilever and Volvo.
“The essentials of Ebiquity are very strong, with a great client list, a strong network of offices and good people,” said Nick Manning, a former Ebiquity exec who now runs his own consultancy Encyclomedia.
But the business needs leadership from a strong individual who is steeped in the media industry and understands how to provide the right direction, Manning said. “Ebiquity is a measurement business when advertisers are crying out for better measurement, and it can capitalize on its strengths by finally developing new digital techniques and through judicious acquisitions,” he said.