Whoops. Nothing like News to Get You Writing Again…

I've read that the problem with blogs is they're hard to maintain unless you're a hardcore blogger. I've been busy these past few weeks, researching a story I'm writing on the Interactive Agency/Web Integrator space. But the big news today is that Brian Keane suddenly resigned as CEO of Keane today amid allegations of "personal misconduct" that the board must have found somewhat serious. You can read the story at today's Boston Globe. I didn't have a lot of time to chase this one down, but the analysts and friends I have in New England mostly speculated it must be sexual harassment. I'm sure the story will come out in the next few days. Keane's a conservative company. C'est dommage. I don't know the Keane brothers. I remember John Keane, the founder, from ITAA. Nice guy. Sheesh– kids.

HRO World

There's this old yarn about how a bratty kid goes to school one day and comes home to find his family has moved. That's how I felt when I roamed about at HRO World. Although it was an outsourcing conference, it could have been "Automotive World" or "Widget Expo." I understood the underlying business model was essentially the same, but the vendors, the leadership, and the customers were so different from what I've been accustomed to in the IT outsourcing space, I felt like a tourist. I did run into some of the old-timers including Bill Bierce, Mark Hodges, and Joe Vales who were warm and welcoming. Joe Vales was especially helpful and generous with filling me in on what was going on and how I might be involved in the HRO space.

The best fun I had was at a party held at the 21 club by vendor Convergys. I met three analysts there with whom I could commiserate and laugh. One, in particular, has an exceptional blog that I had stumbled upon. If you want to know about HRO, don't come here. Visit Jason Corsello's blog. Jason has a real blog. He promised to teach me how to blog like a pro, so that was definitely worth the trip into Manhattan.

Housekeeping- Blogging for the Masses

To my regular readers– I'm experimenting with legitimizing the blog. I've been doing some research on blogging and I think I'm going to give it a go… I took down the private registration, so it is now open to the public. My intention is to start covering the sector fairly aggressively, but I'm still on a learning curve. Once I've got just-in-time news, I'll start an alert service that I'll let you know about ahead of time, just like the old days. For now, I'm writing in several venues: GITS which I still love, and a new column in a new magazine launched by my old friend and first publisher, Mike Perkowski. The magazine is called TechIQ. The online version launched today. So. There you have it. I'm mainstream once again. I hope to see some of you in NY at HRO World. I will be at the 21 club party hosted by Convergys and I just slid in under the wire at the Superstar HROA gala banquet. I'm wondering if my invite included serving the guests rather than being a guest…

Making the Rounds

I’ve been doing my tour of duty over the past month or so. I’ve had phone conversations, meetings, and various negotations with old friends and even some new contacts. For instance, I had an enjoyable meeting yesterday with Harry Feinberg, Andy Tang, and Mike Masters from the outsourcingtoday.com group. Feinberg is the publisher of a series of new titles in the BPO space (new to me anyway who has been AWOL for 5 years). He’s focused now on the F&A BPO market, but has made a nice niche for himself in the HRO market. It turns out Masters worked for years with Joe Levy who started CIO Magazine. We had a lot of stories to share about the people we knew in common, having had a lot of crossover experience with publishing friends and agency business. Sometimes people don’t remember (or don’t even know) I used to be a hotshot Madison Avenue rising star at O&M and LGF&E (a division of JWT). The publishers do, though. My accounts were IBM and AT&T.

I also caught up with Frank Casale who originally formed The Outsourcing Institute with Mike Corbitt (who now runs IAOP. Frank and I have tried to work together for years. I’ve always believed he’s a marketing genius. To even have had the foresight to reserve the outsourcing.com URL in the early 90s was way ahead of his time. Frank was also early to market with BPO. He was publishing on BPO and embracing BPO before any of the cognoscenti was giving any credence to its expanding market possibilities. Frank has some interesting things in the hopper for his business. Stay tuned.

Finally, I had a chat with John Halvey yesterday. Halvey, as you should know. was one of the founding members of the so-called cognoscenti. He’s at Milbank, a highly prestigious Wall Street law firm. He had left for a period, as I did, to pursue opportunities opening up on the Internet Economy frontier by going to work for his friends at Safeguard, but he came back and resumed his practice. He said he doesn’t do much in the way of promotion and speaking these days. I find a lot of my old sources and friends are in a completely different phase of their career these days (read: wildly successful).

Next week, I’ll be attending HRO World. Not sure what to expect. I’m coming at these BPO markets completely humble. I have a lot to learn. I’m like a cub reporter. I remember in college we learned about a management strategy popular in the 80s called “MBWA.” It stood for “Management by Walking Around.” The idea was that management should not be isolated to ivory towers, oak desks, and consultant’s reports– that a lot could be learned organizationally by just asking questions of your own employees. That’s the attitude I’m taking in this new era of post-ITO outsourcing. I’m just walking around, calling around, emailing around– asking questions.

The World is Flatulent

So I went to my first outsourcing conference this week in New York after five years. If I hear one more reference to Mr. Friedman's book, I'm going to start to become disrespectful. Can we please move on to the next pop business fad? There was even an Indian offshore company raffling off the book as a giveaway at their exhibit table.

I have to admit the offshore phenomenon has thrown a wild curve into what used to be an apple pie, all-American business. When you got outsourced by EDS, CSC, or IBM, a Democrat might have lost their job to a Republican, but that was about the end of the political strife. It's a whole different ball game today. I'm exploring my conscience on this one. I haven't read Friedman's book, but I did break down and buy it this week. I hope I find some answers there; but my gut is telling me we're headed for a stormy season in rationalizing why this is a good development in our industry. Am I alone here? Am I missing the big picture?

I think I may be missing something because serendipitously, I sat at the conference (twice, in fact) next to this really well dressed, attractive guy. Now, please understand, really well dressed, attractive guys almost never go to outsourcing conferences (unless they work for a vendor like Oracle or IBM or something). The guy looked Ivy League or like he lived in Connecticut– you know the type. Glancing at his badge, I saw that he was from GAP (General Atlantic Partners), the venture capital firm. Of course, that made sense. When I saw him the second time, I had to ask him why he was at the conference. He told me he was there because one of his companies was presenting, Genpact. In fact, GAP has made investments in two large Indian offshore firms, the other being Patni. He told me he did work in Stamford and that he works with Jim Madden, who as you should remember, was CEO of Exult, another GAP company that was sold to Hewitt, which is a GAP company. Madden is now at GAP.

The bottom line is. I always take my clues from the smart money. If GAP is invested in India, then the offshore thing is not going away. I guess it's like I tell my 9-year old son when he doesn't like a particular outcome or development, "Deal." I feel like I'm reacting (albeit internally) the same way my 9-year old reacts.

Internet Professional Services Redux

So, it seems Robert Pickering is rocking the Casbah in Western Europe. Another old pal of mine, Richard Holway (a demi-god in UK IT Services), sent me a note yesterday, informing me that Robert had just announced an agreement March 21st to merge his company,LBIcon with Framfab. This announcement really moved me. As many of you know, I veered away from the traditional outsourcing market to start tracking the Internet professional services firms in 1999. I published an exhaustive study (300 pages) on the top 30 firms and their capabilities. Of course, we know what happened to Scient, Zefer, iXL… (As a matter of fact, I received a class action suit notice yesterday in the mail against iXL. I didn't even know I bought iXL stock. Whatever.) Nonetheless, Sapient survived. I listened to CEO Jerry Greenberg's session at Greg Gould's (Goldman Sachs) Technology Conference a couple weeks ago. And I hear Digitas is doing very well. There are a host of others in this space that are doing really interesting work. Richard's company (Ovum) had very promising things to say about Robert's new merged company. They've not chosen a name yet. He joked they should call it, "March 21st" (referencing the rollup king, "March 1st" in the same space). I told him "Veritage" was available.

This market excites me. It rocks; it's sexy. The hot air blew out of it 5 years ago. What's left are serious companies who are using the mature benefits of internet technology to advance their clients' businesses.

Here is what Ovum published on the merger:

10:10 LB Icon and Framfab to merge
Douglas Hayward
LB Icon and Framfab this morning said they had agreed to merge to form a pan-European new-media services specialist with pro-forma sales (in 2005) of €149m, making the new company by far the biggest independent new-media specialist in Europe. The two companies provide a range of web design and digital-marketing services to companies, including many blue-chip corporations.
The merger is expected to complete by July 2006, and LB Icon's shareholders will hold a majority of shares. Robert Pickering, CEO of LB Icon, will be CEO of the combined group, which will be listed on the Stockholm exchange and the Euronext exchange in Amsterdam. Sven Skarendahl, chairman of Framfab, will be chairman of the new company.
The UK will be the largest subsidiary, with 32% of sales, followed by Germany (21%), Benelux (16%), the Nordics (14%), Spain (5%) and Italy (3%). The US will account for 9% of sales.
The two companies gave a number of reasons for the merger, including: customer demand for geographical reach, supplier consolidation by clients, the need to attract and retain staff, and of course cost and revenue synergies. The two companies said they expected the merger to be EPS-enhancing in the 2007 financial year. The combined company had pro-forma FY 2005 EBIT margin of just under 9%.
Comment: We may comment further tomorrow. For now, it's worth noting that the two dotcom survivors clearly see the need to combine, not just to gain efficiencies by positioning themselves against new competition. We've recently seen growing interest in this space from IT services players, including Sapient and Accenture, to name but two. This is a nice defensible niche, combining media creativity and deep domain knowledge of marketing-related issues, but that defensibility makes it attractive to new entrants.
The new company (no name has yet been chosen) has the opportunity to establish itself as the dominant pan-European brand in this niche. It's got a blind spot in France, where it doesn't play yet, and it could be bigger in Germany. We'd expect Pickering to buy into France and to expand the Germany operation by bolt-on acquisition in H2 this year, following the official merger.
Can it create significant barriers to entry? This is difficult in a people industry. But this is a market that combines people-centric creativity with technology and analytic skills (the latter is important in analysing and improving clients' new-media marketing operations), so it's not "just" a people business.
The big risk is that LB Icon handles the integration badly, alienating staff and/or customers, or gets too bureaucratic. The latter is unlikely, as I think the country operations will have a lot of autonomy. A bigger threat might be the failure to get the promised revenue synergies. It also faces the threat of marketing consultancies and IT services players eating its lunch. But LB Icon and Framfab are survivors par excellence in a market that went through dreadful times after the dotcom boom, so they stand an excellent chance of puling this off.