Acxiom Seeks Replacement CEO with Strong Digital Background

Though his tenure was relatively brief, former Acxiom Corp. CEO John Meyer, who abruptly departed the company in late March, nonetheless helped "right the ship," said Dave Frankland, an analyst with Forrester Research.

"I think John was a great hire for the post-Charles Morgan era," Frankland said. "I think he did a really good job of getting the company aligned around a new direction."

(Click here to learn more about what Acxiom will seek in a new CEO, or here for more coverage of Meyer's departure.)

Analysts and Acxiom executives said the company is looking for a leader who has a solid digital media background and can negotiate a marketing world that has been and is continuing to be transformed by the Internet, social media, smartphones, tablet computers and mobile apps.

Morgan led Acxiom for 35 years, during which time it became one of the largest marketing companies in the world and a significant employer in the state. The company currently employs about 6,800 worldwide, including more than 2,150 in Arkansas. (The company confirmed last week that it was laying off 45 employees, including 12 in central Arkansas.) Morgan's tenure ended after a $3 billion deal to take the company private fell apart in October 2007. Meyer was brought on as CEO in January 2008.

The announcement of Meyer's departure - along with the news that CFO Chris Wolf will leave the company in a few weeks and a warning that the company will write down some of its European assets - resulted in a sell-off that chopped about 23 percent off of the company's stock price by the end of day March 30. (The trilogy of revelations also prompted the investment pundits at The Motley Fool to rank Acxiom among the "five dumbest stock plays" that week.)

The stock bottomed out at $12.58 on the day of the announcement but was trading back above $15 on Thursday morning. Analysts with Stephens Inc., BMO Capital Markets and Piper Jaffray took a mixed view in terms of target prices, which ranged from $12 to $19.

In the days following Meyer's departure, at least three law firms that specialize in shareholder class actions announced that they were looking into possible wrongdoing at the company, though no complaints had been filed as of Thursday afternoon.

Acxiom board members and interim CEO Jerry Gramaglia were not available for interviews last week, the company told Arkansas Business.

A research note by Stephens analyst Carter Malloy stated that Acxiom "surprised investors" with the news of the executive departures and lower than expected fourth-quarter results.

Frankland, of Forrester Research, said he couldn't say for sure whether Meyer was forced out or resigned voluntarily. But, he said, "I didn't necessarily see it coming. I think that in some respects it was a gutsy move by the board. I don't think [Meyer] was necessarily doing anything wrong, as such. I think it's more that he wasn't going at pace they were hoping for and that he doesn't have that expertise that they were hoping for."

As far as what the board will seek in a new CEO, "my sense is what they're looking for from the next person is a continuation in terms of the operational capabilities and strengths, with someone more entrenched in the marketing services and especially digital marketing services arena," Frankland said.

Malloy's research report expressed a similar take, stating that the board will likely look for an "outside CEO to focus the business on a more digital-centric product offering and new markets."

"Historically, these companies like Acxiom were built to help companies do direct mail, and then they sent it out through other channels, but it's still direct-marketing oriented," Frankland said. "And I think in this day and age, that's not enough."

Frankland said Meyer had made strides in the digital marketing business but probably wasn't moving the company in that direction quickly enough to suit the board of directors.

In October, Acxiom unveiled AbiliTec Digital, an update of the custom data integration software it had created 10 years earlier.

"For the first time, Acxiom clients can identify customers through email and mobile addresses, not just physical identifiers, dramatically improving customer information accuracy," an Acxiom release stated.

A research note by Piper Jaffray analyst Mark Zgutowicz offered something of a mixed review. "While Abilitec Digital holds promise for meeting advertiser online/mobile real-time demands, timing and ultimate effectiveness of the solution remains uncertain," he wrote.

"When you think about digital, it's transforming that industry. The traditional marketing industry is being turned on its head by digital," Frankland said. That means companies like Acxiom have to do more than just collect and organize data, of which there is more than at any other point in history.

Marketing companies have to help their clients leverage, analyze and integrate data "to improve their inbound communications, services, product development, hiring, you name it. It doesn't matter which part of the business, it should all be at least influenced, if not driven by, knowledge about customers," Frankland said.