Design Bridge and APL deny courtship rumours

Matthew Valentine investigates the rumours that Ammirati Puris Lintas is looking to buy Design Bridge to add to its stable of design consultancies – rumours that both groups deny.

Both ad agency Ammirati Puris Lintas and Design Bridge have this week denied they are in talks which would result in APL buying the Clerkenwell design group.

Whether there is a deal in the pipeline or not, some changes are likely to occur in the relationship between the pair. Design Bridge managing director David Rivett has confirmed that talks about extending working agreements between the groups are in progress. He and creative director Rod Petrie were among a delegation of Design Bridge staff who last week visited the New York headquarters of APL.

High on the agenda, says Rivett, was the topic of the two groups working together in the US, a market hitherto untapped by Design Bridge. Similar arrangements already exist in India and Indonesia, and the companies have started pitching jointly in the UK. “It makes sense to cultivate alliances like that,” he says. “We don’t need anything formal to be complementary.”

The two groups go back a long way, with APL being a potential backer when Design Bridge launched in 1986. But Rivett claims there was no talk in New York of APL buying Design Bridge.

“People have put two and two together and come up with 56,” he says. He blames a policy of openness, meaning 95 per cent of Design Bridge’s staff knew of the New York visit, and the gossipy nature of the design industry for the ensuing rumours.

Both he and Design Bridge’s finance director Mike Hawkins contradict claims from sources close to the consultancy that its directors are keen to find a rich parent group.

But is there smoke without fire? One former member of Design Bridge claims that the consultancy has been on the market for some time, having reached nearly 100 UK staff and finding itself in a position where it needs major backing for the next step of its development and growth. “Now is a good time to sell,” he says.

The group was placed ninth in Design Week’s recent 1998 Top 100 Consultancy Survey (DW 27 March), with fee-income of 6.8m and turnover of 8.9m. The older generation of directors at the group are now, says their former colleague, keen to “cash in their chips” while the going is good. He is of the opinion that Design Bridge will find a buyer somewhere, even if the rumoured APL deal does not materialise.

Rivett and Hawkins again deny there is truth in this. “In the last year we have restructured ourselves,” says Hawkins. He explains that changes to the shareholding structure of the group allow the younger generation of management, currently working its way up through the company, to become shareholders. This, he argues, would have been a futile exercise if the directors were planning to sell the company. The opposing argument could, of course, be that more shareholders will have chips they wish to cash.

Staff at APL are also denying the accuracy of claims that it is considering buying Design Bridge. “They are a good company, but we have no plans to buy them,” says a spokeswoman.

As part of The Interpublic Group, APL is already indirectly linked with a number of design groups worldwide. The acquisitive parent company also owns The Coleman Group, which houses a number of design groups, and Diefenbach Elkins, which in turn owns Diefenbach Elkins Davies Baron.

Only time will tell if it harbours plans to add more design expertise to its stable, or whether its appetites have been sated and it feels it owns enough design groups already.

Design Bridge history

Design Bridge creates packaging and branding and has a healthy client list. Around one third of its work is for Unilever, a client which was of great importance when the group formed 12 years ago and is shared with APL. It also has a number of recent sports-related identity projects under its belt, for clients such as the Football Association, the Carling Premiership and the International Rugby Board.

Drinks and confectionery packaging form another main strand of its business, with projects for Scandinavian vodka brand Maximus, Bass alco pop Hooper’s Hoola, Bell’s Whisky, Suchard’s chocolates and Nestlé’s Real Chocolate Mousse completed over the last two years.

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