By Nick Kostov
Martin Sorrell's new marketing venture has agreed to acquire a Netherlands-based digital production agency, topping a rival bid from the WPP PLC, the advertising giant he spent decades building.
Financial terms weren't disclosed, but people familiar with the matter said Mr. Sorrell's new venture, which he plans to call S4 Capital, will pay around EUR300 million ($352 million) for MediaMonks in cash and shares.
Mr. Sorrell's pursuit of MediaMonks shows the 73-year-old executive hasn't lost his appetite for acquisitions, especially if that means dueling with his former employer over prize assets. In 1985, Mr. Sorrell took a shell company called Wire & Plastic Products and used it to make a string of acquisitions, eventually building the world's largest ad group with a market capitalization of more than GBP15 billion ($19.9 billion).
In April, Mr. Sorrell resigned as chief executive of WPP after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company's board was looking into an allegation of improper personal behavior and whether Mr. Sorrell had misused company assets. Mr. Sorrell rejected the allegation "unreservedly" at that time.
The probe looked into whether Mr. Sorrell used company money to pay for a prostitute, the Journal subsequently reported, citing people familiar with that investigation.
Last month, Mr. Sorrell denied he visited a prostitute and paid for it with company money. He has also more broadly denied any wrongdoing.
A deal for MediaMonks marks Mr. Sorrell's first acquisition since resigning from WPP, and his willingness to bid against the ad giant is ratcheting up tensions between the two sides.
Founded in 2001, MediaMonks produces games, films and websites, and its use of technologies like virtual reality has made it a coveted business for advertising agencies whose clients are seeking cutting edge technologies for their ads. It employs more than 750 people and has worked for companies including Adidas AG, Netflix Inc. and health-product company Johnson & Johnson.
Last week, WPP's lawyers wrote to Mr. Sorrell's lawyers to warn him that he was "likely to be in breach of his confidentiality undertakings" over his pursuit of MediaMonks, according to a person who has reviewed the letter. The letter stated that Mr. Sorrell could lose share awards worth millions of pounds that were part of his long-term incentive program with WPP, the person said.
The letter said WPP began exploring an acquisition of MediaMonks last November, and that Mr. Sorrell had traveled to the Netherlands to meet with the production company's executives, according to the person. During that period, Mr. Sorrell was also able to assess MediaMonks' business, client base and future prospects, the letter said, according to the person.
"As a consequence [Mr. Sorrell] was privy to extensive WPP confidential information which he was only able to acquire through his role at WPP," the letter said, according to the person.
"It's a matter for the lawyers but Sir Martin strenuously denies any breach of anything," said a spokesman for Mr. Sorrell.
Mr. Sorrell has described S4 Capital as a "peanut" that is too small to compete with an ad giant like WPP.
Still, the acquisition is the first step in Mr. Sorrell's mission to build a "new era" marketing group focused on data, technology and content creation. He has been increasingly critical of WPP in his public appearances, faulting its handling of events leading up to his departure and calling its decision to unload a minority stake in software company Globant a "significant mistake".
WPP and other ad holding companies are trying to restore revenue they have lost as some advertisers that once kept agencies on lucrative retainers have begun to limit their spending to one-off projects. By investing in production, ad agencies can diversify their revenue streams in project-based work that still requires a production studio for filming, mixing the soundtrack or coding a videogame.
Write to Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com