What's It Like to Be Bought?

Jun 18, 2007

It's easy to imagine a collective gasp from independent healthcare agencies everywhere last March on hearing the that news Dorland Global was bought by London-based Huntsworth. Dorland was one of the oldest independent healthcare agencies in the world. Is it right, then, to view the acquisition as significant, a sign perhaps of things to come? And what was it like for the Sweeneys to let go of their baby after all these years?

Owned (along with eight other shareholders) by agency legends Rita and Harry Sweeney (pictured here), Dorland was sold to the British firm Huntsworth for a total of $20.7 million upfront (though the total amount paid through 2010 could be $50 million based on Dorland's profitability over the next three years). In May, Dorland was ranked as the third-most-profitable healthcare agency by Advertising Age, with revenue for 2006 listed at $33.1 million, a 32 percent change from 2005.

Huntsworth has 60 offices and 1,650 employees worldwide. Dorland will be part of its Huntsworth Health Division, which offers marketing, Internet service, and public and professional relations, as well as branding and a variety of marketing communications.

Rita Sweeney and Dorland, in a sense, grew up together. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Rita began a career in public relations. She shifted from public relations to advertising account management after purchasing Dorland with her husband, Harry, in 1975. Rita's love of PR led her to pioneer its integration with traditional advertising campaigns, as well as with carefully planned issues-and crisis-management programs and product launches.

As Dorland grew, so did Rita, acquiring new skills in general agency management while filling the role of executive vice president. Rita became president and COO of Dorland Global in 1998.

Much admired in the field, Rita has garnered numerous awards, including being named one of the Top 50 Business Women in Pennsylvania.


AGENCY CONFIDENTIAL: So, why did you do it? Why, as the oldest independent agency and one of the most successful, go the acquisition route now?

Rita: Independence was important, and for a long time it was a competitive advantage for us. It gave us a unique selling position. As an independent, we believed we were able to accomplish everything that a publicly held agency could. We had the top-tier talent; we had the global accounts; we had the award winning creative.... But, our focus was on business practicalities in a rapidly changing environment. The fact of the matter is that the evolving healthcare-marketing landscape is heading in a new direction. The competitive advantage we enjoyed as an independent for decades just wasn't going to be on par with the needs of the marketplace within a few short years.

AC: How do you see those needs?

Rita: In today's environment, clients want an agency with a true footprint in markets around the globe. It's not good enough anymore to just have a loose agreement with a partner agency that allows you to put a dot on a map during a pitch and say you're global. The marketing and communications teams at healthcare companies today are dealing with increasingly complex situations, and juggling multiple agencies in multiple markets adds work for them and is almost guaranteed to create a lack of alignment somewhere along the way. Clients want to know that if they need a program in Beijing or Berlin they can pick up the phone to talk to their agency in Philadelphia and coordinate everything from a central location.

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