Why Facebook and GM should sign a prenup

After nearly calling it quits over advertising, the two companies are working to get back together. Will it last this time?

By TheStreet Staff Jul 10, 2012 11:10AM

By Richard Saintvilus


Ever since social media giant Facebook (FB) lost General Motors (GM) as an advertising client prior to its initial public offering, the social media company has been working extremely hard to prove that not only is its site an effective advertising platform, but that it can produce a superior return to traditional outlets such as print media and television.


GM, which has a significant annual advertising budget of approximately $3 billion, until recently has been advertising on Facebook for four years -- spending close to $40 million for combined advertising as well as creative and management service fees.


Reconcilable Differences

Along with Google (GOOG), which is the Internet's most widely visited site (with Facebook coming in a close second, according to elexa.com) there is no shortage of advertising clients. So since Facebook generates one of the top advertising revenue figures on the Internet, losing GM did not register as a significant blow as much as it was to the company's ego -- particularly as it arrived just weeks ahead of its "larger than life" IPO.


We all know how that turned out.


Facebook has had to deal with an embarrassing public relations nightmare created by GM when, in May, Joel Ewanick, GM's chief of global marketing, said the company saw little impact in terms of consumer car purchases from paid ads on Facebook.


This immediately prompted questions about the effectiveness of ads on Facebook. The situation was further exacerbated when it was revealed Facebook has been shedding users over the past several months to the extent that people were wondering if Google's own social media platform, Google+, could have been the reason for the decline.


These concerns prompted Facebook to release a report where, according to NYTimes.com, it highlighted its advertising success stories from companies including Target (TGT) and Starbucks (SBUX).


Apparently this report convinced GM to rekindle its friendship. It is rumored that both companies are now talking about renewing their vows after the recent public, albeit one-sided, divorce.


Renewing the Vows
Sources say those involved in the discussions, which date back to the end of June, were Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Daniel Akerson, GM's CEO. Investors received confirmation of these talks when Greg Martin, a spokesman for GM said, "The discussions are back on" but he gave no other details.


It remains to be seen where the discussions go from here. However, I would imagine the fact that it appears Facebook's growth peaked in November should be a factor during the negotiations. In fact, I think it might be wise for GM do the right thing this time and include a prenuptial agreement.


I say this because comScore, a site that specializes in Internet data and research, recently revealed a drop in Facebook's unique visitors. While it was not a significant drop, the research firm did suggest it would last longer than anyone could have anticipated.


It seems that Facebook has essentially stopped growing. The point of saturation is something I didn't think would be possible for several more years -- particularly when you consider all of the various geographic regions that Facebook has yet to dominate.


So at this point what will GM get in this deal if Facebook is no longer able to offer the promises of growth? Because while Facebook can point to its dominance in North America -- which continues to account for 50% of the company's revenue, advertising clients will still want to know their target demographics are continuing to grow.


Will GM ask to make advertising payments on certain conditions this time? Will Facebook concede to the new terms? While it can respond and say this is not the conventional model of doing business, GM can counter with non-conventional standards of its own. Certainly the details of this deal will be worthy of another chapter.


Bottom Line
As nice as it is for a public fallout of two giants to result in a public display of affection, in the end it can mean very little, if anything. Discussions are now going because both sides want something -- whether or not it is mutually beneficial remains to be seen.


However, what I'm curious to see is how both companies address the source of the initial concern, which as GM's global marketing chief Joel Ewanick said, GM saw little impact in consumer car purchases from paid ads on Facebook.


I think this was the biggest indictment of the whole situation and the principal blow to the chin of Facebook's resulting in the domestic dispute.


The question is, how will either company quantify that this has been corrected and each are carrying their weight? If so, to what extent should it prove this time that GM is now getting a suitable return on its investment? A recent statistic showed that one out of five marriages that ends in divorce is the result of Facebook. In its attempt to keep GM happy this time, can Facebook avoid being its own statistic?


At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and held no positions in any of the other stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.


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At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL and held no positions in any of the other stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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