ESTEE LAUDER IPO PREPARES FOR FUTURE;LOWE THE LEADER IN RACE FOR $80M ACCOUNT

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Wall Street thinks Estee Lauder Cos.' initial public offering will be a winner, and Madison Avenue is betting that Interpublic Group of Cos. and agency Lowe & Partners are about to snare the $2.9 billion company's $80 million in spending.

It has long been speculated the cosmetics giant would either sell or go public as it prepared to face a future minus its aging and frail matriarch Estee Lauder, rumored to be 87. Last week, Lauder cast its vote in an IPO filing with an offering price of $335 million, though ironically this could make it more vulnerable to takeover.

While some analysts were surprised the filing showed net sales of just $126.1 million in fiscal 1995 ended June 30, PaineWebber's Andrew Shore said, "This deal will sell in a nanosecond. You couldn't want a better property."

Nor could an agency, it seems, despite Lauder's parsimonious reputation-it is said to pay less than 8% commission.

In the year and a half since Lauder called an agency review-a death blow to longtime agency AC&R that left sister shop Bates Manhattan, which buys media, holding the bag-agencies scrambled for the account.

But the review languished, and only Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, emerged with assignments.

Lauder is said to want to settle its agency status by October. A spokeswoman said, "Nothing new on Lowe."

L&P/SMS Chairman Frank Lowe did not return calls. But throughout Interpublic, the skinny is Lowe will soon be Lauder's next agency of record.

Said one Interpublic executive: "Lauder and Lowe are talking. Lowe should get it. Not because Frank Lowe knows [Lauder Chairman Leonard] Lauder but because Frank's people have proven they can handle media."

Last year, Lowe-Howard Spink, London, won Lauder's Tuscany Per Donna fragrance. In May, Lowe & Partners/SMS got creative responsibility for Lauder fragrances Beautiful and Pleasures, fostering talk worldwide fragrances (spending $30 million) would go to it by January.

Whether or not it's Lowe, the death knell for Bates seems clear. Two weeks ago, Lauder pulled its advertising from the November issues of Vanity Fair, Mademoiselle and Glamour because of Conde Nast's penchant for inserts.

Agency sources said Lauder felt Bates should have negotiated harder, and the episode crystallized its decision to move.

Now, "Lowe has the inside track," said an executive close to the evaluation.

Some agency executives believe Lowe will get media and at least some print creative responsibility, now handled in house. One also said Interpublic's Western International media buying unit could pick up media, but an insider termed that unlikely.

According to the IPO filing, Lauder spends $847.7 million on global marketing, with less than a third of that in advertising.

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