Agency renamed ICM Partners; Berg out of management picture

Now the hard work begins.

After a year of internal turmoil, ICM staffers toasted the dawn of a new era for the tenpercentery on Wednesday as it announced the completion of its restructuring into a partner-owned agency and the buyout of majority owners Rizvi Traverse Management and longtime chairman Jeff Berg. Berg will no longer have a management role but will continue to rep clients.

The transformation includes a new name, ICM Partners, for the agency formed in 1975 by the merger of Creative Management Associates and Intl. Famous Agency.

Insiders positioned the naming of 29 partner-owners as laying the foundation for a growth strategy that will allow ICM to expand in its core areas — TV, film, publishing and live events — and grow in areas like branding and endorsements and new media that have lucrative potential for clients.

At a time of rapid change for the agency biz, ICM had been stymied in its ability to grow by its inability to offer prospective new recruits a partner-level position. Private equity concern Rizvi by many accounts had been reluctant to allow the agency to devote resources into recruiting the kind of top talent reps that would enhance its roster.

Now, ICM is eschewing titles and a hierarchical leadership structure in favor of a meritocracy among the partners. The hope is to expand the partner ranks as worthy people become available.

But industry observers said the agency will still face an uphill climb in competing with CAA, WME, UTA and others in attracting top talent. The agency endured its share of client and agent defections during the past year amid reports of strife between Berg and former prexy Chris Silbermann, who led the arduous buyout process.

A decade ago, ICM was one of showbiz’s Big Three agencies, but today, with about 160 agents, it is a significantly smaller operation than CAA or WME, both of which have 350-plus agents. And UTA, with about 125 agents, is a formidable competitor to its older rivals in crucial areas like TV and motion picture lit and comedy talent.

ICM’s news release emphasized that neither Berg nor Rizvi reps “will participate in the management of the agency or serve on the agency’s board” — a signal to the town that the intramural battles are over.

“ICM Partners, now under the complete control of a partnership of agents, is committed to expanding the agency’s core businesses of film, television, publishing and live events for the benefit of clients and associates alike,” the partners said in a statement.

The 29 partners named Wednesday: Lorrie Bartlett, Bonnie Bernstein, Robert Broder, John Burnham, Ted Chervin, Nicole Clemens, Carter Cohn, Harley Copen, Kevin Crotty, Dan Donahue, Emile Gladstone, Mark Gordon, Sloan Harris, Paul Hook, Toni Howard, Chuck James, Michael Kagan, Steve Levine, Richard Levy, Greg Lipstone, Esther Newberg, Janet Carol Norton, Dar Rollins, Adam Schweitzer, Chris Silbermann, Amanda Urban, Chris von Goetz, Joanne Wiles and Eddy Yablans.

The announcement was made with fanfare and a champagne toast Wednesday ayem in the lobby of ICM’s Century City office, which was linked via video conference to ICM’s New York office. A number of the newly minted partners made rally-the-troops speeches, including Silbermann, Chervin, von Goetz, Harris and Yablans.

Although specifics are being hammered out, it’s likely that there will be a board for key decision makers needed to sign off on expenditures and management issues, and there will be various committees comprised of partners tackling more specific governance and administrative issues. The goal is to give the partners a voice in decision-making and to feel invested in strategic planning. Or in the words of one insider: “We want people to think like owners.”

The immediate focus for the new team will be on recruiting new blood. ICM aims to move quickly in beefing up its ranks in film, where the agency has struggled, branding and endorsements and new media.

ICM said the buyouts of Berg and Rivzi were done with a combination of cash, preferred non-voting shares and “an ongoing interest in certain assets of the company,” the latter of which surely refers to the agency’s lucrative syndication revenue from TV hits including “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family.”

Sources said the restructuring did not involve any outside sources of financing, and it’s understood that at least some of the partners kicked in coin to fund the buyout.

In a statement, Rizvi Traverse said: “We congratulate the new partners of ICM and believe the transfer of ownership is the right direction for the agency, and the appropriate conclusion to the investment made in 2005.” At the time Rizvi and Merrill Lynch jointly invested about $100 million in the recapitalization of ICM.

Berg cast the deal as a generational shift for the agency that has been his home since he joined Creative Management Associates in 1969.

“This deal allows the next generation of leadership to participate in the success of the business, which is what we promised when we secured Rizvi Traverse as investors. I look forward to working with the partners in representing artists in all areas of the company,” he said.

Insiders said the transition for Berg was a welcome outcome for the agency, and the buyout would not have happened without his blessing. Berg has faced criticism internally for his track record as a leader, especially in recent years, but he continues to rep heavy hitters and is skilled in helping clients assemble movies and raise capital for other projects.

“Jeff loves being an agent,” one ICM vet said. “This is the best role for him.”

Others noted that ICM has a history of owners selling their interests but continuing to work for the firm, citing Sam Cohn and Marvin Josephson.

ICM’s separation from Rizvi Traverse comes the same month that WME sold a 31% interest in the agency to private equity firm Silver Lake, which has focused on technology investments. CAA in 2010 sold a 35% stake to TPG Capital.

Both CAA and WME said the influx of capital would help them pursue new business opportunities to benefit clients, as well as the possibility of partnering with their investors on other ventures. ICM’s deal with Rizvi Traverse facilitated its purchase of the Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann agency in 2006. At first, ICM-ers maintained that Rizvi reps were hands-off in the management of the agency, but in recent years it’s no secret that there were conflicts when it came to setting strategic priorities and long-term business plans.

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