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updated: 2/25/2014 9:30 AM

Conversant's appeal grows with focus on online ad tech

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Conversant Inc. is gaining appeal as a takeover target after the company formerly known as ValueClick Inc. sold website businesses to focus on digital-advertising technology.

The $1.65 billion company, which divested sites including Investopedia this year while increasing its presence in digital- video advertising, may attract traditional agencies such as WPP Plc as they seek to gain proprietary technology, said Lake Street Capital Markets LLC. Its relatively low valuation could draw buyout interest, according to S&P Capital IQ.

Conversant trades at a lower multiple of projected profit than 91 percent of peers in advertising and marketing, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Macquarie Group Ltd. said Conversant's narrowed focus and the growth prospects for online marketing could increase its appeal, with the market for digital video advertising projected by Frost & Sullivan to more than double by 2016.

"It's an attractive space, and it's viewed as a high- growth space," Tom White, a New York-based analyst at Macquarie, said in a phone interview. "Buying it is probably a little less complicated" after the website divestitures.

A representative for Westlake Village, California-based Conversant said the company doesn't comment on speculation, when asked whether it would consider a sale.

Conversant's technology helps marketers personalize ads and target users based on their previous Internet searches on mobile or desktop devices. It is one of the leaders in affiliate marketing, which matches advertisers with the best online placement to drive Web clicks, according to White at Macquarie.

Narrowed Focus

Conversant this year sold its content websites, which also included PriceRunner and CouponMountain.com, while changing its name. It also bought SET Media Inc., a video technology company, to help strengthen its position in a digital-video advertising market that's projected to grow to $15 billion by 2016 from about $7 billion last year, according to Frost & Sullivan.

"Obviously a lot of change has gone on at the company," Scott Kessler, a New York-based analyst at S&P, said in a phone interview. "Across a number of different kinds of metrics and financial data, there's a lot to like."

Conversant, which gained 24 percent since announcing its website divestiture plan in November, still has a lower valuation than most peers. It trades at 13.5 times its projected profit for 2014, compared with a median price-earnings multiple of 22 for advertising and marketing companies valued at more than $1 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The stock fell 0.2 percent to $24.69 at 9:59 a.m. in New York today.

Digital Value

"Certainly there's value in what they have," Shyam Patil, an analyst at Wedbush Inc., said in a phone interview. "The stock isn't terribly expensive."

Large advertising agencies such as WPP or Publicis Groupe SA, which is merging with Omnicom Group Inc., could show interest in Conversant, said Eric Martinuzzi, an analyst with Minneapolis-based Lake Street.

"Those classic offline agencies, they don't want to keep losing wallet share to the digital side of the house," Martinuzzi said in a phone interview. "So, what happens is they will acquire digital ad services companies to defend that wallet share."

A representative for London-based WPP declined to comment, while a representative for Paris-based Publicis didn't respond to a request for comment outside of normal business hours.

Other Buyers

Less traditional advertising-focused companies such as Internet retailer Amazon.com Inc. or software provider Adobe Systems Inc. also may want access to Conversant's online technologies, said Macquarie's White.

Adobe is among software providers that have been expanding in digital marketing and advertising. Last year, it acquired Neolane, which makes tools to help marketers reach consumers through personalized campaigns via the Internet, e-mail, mobile devices and direct mail.

Also last year, Salesforce.com Inc. expanded in online marketing with its $2.5 billion purchase of ExactTarget Inc.

"Companies like Adobe have been quietly scooping up and buying digital ad assets over the past couple of years," White said. "The overall industry is growing at a nice clip."

Representatives for Seattle-based Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment. San Jose, California-based Adobe doesn't comment on speculation.

Bearish Bets

Conversant could struggle to find a buyer for the whole business since its collection of assets covers a broad range of services, Patil at Wedbush said. Prospective purchasers may only want specific pieces of the company, such as the higher-margin affiliate business or proprietary media technologies.

"It's hard to see who exactly the buyer might be," he said.

Some investors are betting against Conversant.

About 15 percent of the company's shares outstanding were sold short as of Feb. 21, according to the latest data compiled by Markit, a London-based provider of financial information. That compares with 3.9 percent for the average stock in the Russell 2000 Index. In a short sale, traders sell borrowed stock on the assumption the price will decline, allowing them to make money by buying it back at a lower price.

While bearish bets remain high, the level has dropped from a peak of 18.3 percent earlier this month, according to Markit.

Conversant's market value of less than $2 billion makes it digestible for a private-equity firm that may see opportunities to further streamline the business and get more out of its assets, said S&P's Kessler, who sees a range of possible buyers.

"There are some important assets and businesses that they have in a category that's seen as still offering not just growth, but long-term strategic relevancy," Kessler said. "I think it makes sense."

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