by Herman Manson (@marklives) Digitas LBi, part of Publicis Groupe, has acquired South African digital agency Liquorice. Liquorice will form part of Digitas LBi’s Middle East & Africa region but will retain its own brand identity.

Digitas LBi was formed in 2013 when Publicis Groupe merged Digitas with then Amsterdam-based LBi. The network has 40 offices in 25 liquoricecountries.

Miles Murphy launched Liquorice in 2005 and the agency currently employs 115 people in four offices – Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Bellville. Agency clients include Unilever, Distell, Sanlam, Pioneer Foods, SAB Miller, SA Home Loans and Elizabeth Arden.

Murphy says Liquorice will be used as a vehicle for Digitas LBi to expand its footprint into key African markets. The agency had been in discussions with Publicis Groupe for 12 months after rejecting several other possible deals. Murphy says these would have merged Liquorice with traditional agencies when he still believes that, in emerging markets, growth for outfits like his lies in digital specialisation.

Digitas LBi is a digital pure-play – just like Liquorice. “It’s us but on a much grander scale,” comments Murphy. The deal, a full acquisition, gives Liquorice access to greater expertise and international contacts. It will assist the agency to grow its African footprint quicker – a key client demand, according to Murphy. The fact that Liquorice can remain true to its digital core, and that Digitas LBi has no existing agency structure into which it would have had to fit, sealed the deal, he adds.

miles murpheyIn terms of expansion plans, Murphy says the agency is already doing work for clients in a number of countries outside of SA, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola and Nigeria. Cape Town will remain the production hub for the agency but local client service and content teams will be established in key markets. It’s a model already tried and tested in both Johannesburg and Durban, and Nigeria is next in line says Murphy.

The South African ad industry has recently seen a series of takeovers and mergers of high-profile independent agencies by global communications networks.

Publicis Groupe (head-quartered in Paris, France) acquired BrandsRock, which it merged with Saatchi & Saatchi to form Saatchi & Saatchi Brandsrock as well as OwenKessel (merged with Leo Burnett) plus digital agency Lighthouse Digital (which has become part of Publicis division Starcom MediaVest Group). In December 2013, Publicis bought out digital agency Synergize to sit within Saatchi & Saatchi South Africa.

WPP, meanwhile, bought into Cerebra and Native. WPP operating company JWT acquired a majority stake in Durban-based The Hardy Boys; WPP announced that its wholly-owned operating company Grey had acquired a majority stake in The Volcano Group; and the same British multinational advertising and PR company also took a controlling stake in Quirk.

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