When Taylor Nelson Sofres finally submitted to WPP’s bid last week, it was the end of a bitter battle for the company by Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP, which had earlier seen off a bid from rival GfK.
Though a merger with GfK had been the preferred outcome for TNS – first mooted in April as a “merger of equals” and later under revised terms – the German company finally quit talks six weeks ago. Falling share prices made the WPP bid impossible to fend off any longer.
TNS’s position was that a takeover by WPP would compromise its independence, but one of TNS’s founders, Liz Nelson, approves of the deal. Nelson left TNS in 1992 and is now chairman of mobile research company Q Research. She dismisses concerns that TNS will lack independence under the WPP umbrella, adding/ “Martin Sorrell has always respected the brands he buys.”
She says that a number of industry people feel that TNS has become “just a business”, lacking skilled market research people at board level. Another criticism is that TNS has been “very slow to innovate” and she refers to the company as a “tanker trying to turn around”.
Filling the global gaps There is little doubt that the addition of TNS will be of benefit to Kantar, the research arm of WPP. Kantar’s global reach is patchy at best, although it performs well in Asian markets, one of WPP’s strongest geographical areas and one that dovetails well with TNS’s footprint. Kantar’s ability to innovate faster will help TNS’s development, adds Nelson.
But others argue that the future of market research lies with the newer, fast-growing online research agencies such as YouGov and Toluna, particularly at a time when marketers are using it as a tool to ensure every penny is well-spent.
YouGov chief executive Nadhim Zahawi says the new methodology delivers in real time, “like a flowing pipeline”, rather than at periods of time.
And while TNS does offer fast services based on online and mobile research, Zahawi claims the older companies are encumbered by the costly infrastructure of phone and face-to-face methods, which still make up much of their business.
Companies without such hindrance can deliver “much more analytics for less money”, he adds.
But Peter Walshe, global account director at WPP research agency Millward Brown, counters: “Big doesn’t necessarily mean slow, and small doesn’t necessarily mean nimble. Genuine leading-edge thinking is what you’re going to get from the leading companies, and some of them are big.”
Some suggest that the consolidation of so much market research under the WPP banner might pose a potential conflict of interest. But Walshe strongly denies this. Millward Brown, for example, which was taken over by WPP in 1990, has always been in the position where it undertakes research that assesses the effectiveness of advertising agencies’ work, including some that are WPP-owned. “Our business completely relies on us being dispassionate,” he says.
Martin Troughton, marketing director for Anglian Windows and co-founder of Harrison Troughton Wunderman, which is now owned by WPP, agrees. “There has always been potential for conflict, but it’s never been an issue.” He says the scale of WPP’s operations, far from being a hindrance, could in fact help, with benefits for a WPP-owned TNS outfit.
Benefits of WPP backing “If WPP finds something that works in Outer Mongolia, you can be damn sure it will be using it in Australia two weeks later. WPP is very accomplished at that. If TNS doesn’t have a footprint somewhere, WPP will soon be all over that,” he says.
Yet the consolidation of so many companies under the WPP banner may give clients pause for thought. He says: “This level of consolidation is going to lead, at some point, to a client saying that it doesn’t want to have absolutely everything in one pot.”
An extensive restructure of TNS is expected now that the deal, which many in the industry see as yet another example of WPP’s driving ambition, is complete.