Aegis in the grip of a twin peril

Eryck Rebbouh? Bruno Kemoun? Who they? It’s fair to say this exotically named duo are not widely known in the UK. And that’s a pity, because they have the power to put the reputation of Europe’s pre-eminent media specialist, Aegis, through a gruelling ordeal.

Rebbouh and Kemoun have just resigned, abruptly, as joint chief executives of Aegis Media Europe. Their bland titular designation does scant justice to their importance. As does the fact that they happen to be two of only six executive directors of the publicly quoted Aegis, holding company of the Carat and second-string Vizeum worldwide media networks.

Known as the Siamese twins, because of their inseparability, these two men have, over 18 years, done more than anyone to build Carat’s strength and reputation. They form the only direct link with Carat’s legendary French founders, Francis and Gilbert Gros, stretching back long before Aegis bought the company in 1990. Largely through their efforts, Carat became the premier media buying and planning operation in France – with an astonishing 30 per cent of that market – and subsequently the European force to be reckoned with.

‘So what?’ you may say. ‘That’s history; it won’t affect the future.’ This certainly appears to be the attitude of London-based investors, whose lack of concern was reflected in an almost unmoving share price after the news broke last week. Investor confidence (if we discount ignorance) probably stems from a firmly held belief about media businesses: that, unlike creative and full-service agencies, they are virtually immune to major client defections when senior executives quit. The decision by one of the UK’s best-known media specialists, Christine Walker, to quit Zenith some years ago and set up Walker Media might seem to prove the point. It was a hard slog – and though Walker won Dixons, that was also due in some measure to the influence of the Saatchi brothers.

Aegis may not be as lucky as Zenith. The facts about Rebbouh and Kemoun’s acrimonious departure are murky. Some point to talks with a potential buyer of Aegis, probably Omnicom; others to a strategic bust-up with plc chief executive Doug Flynn over the amount being invested in research – as opposed to core – businesses. What matters, however, is that Rebbouh and Kemoun are determined to set up in competition next year, and are in a very good position to do so. They may even link up with the god-fatherly figure of Gilbert Gros. In France, where client relations are much more personal than in the UK, that must be worrying enough for Aegis; but the duo’s reputation spreads right across Europe (except the UK), which is Aegis’ heartland. Flynn, by contrast, though respected in investor circles, has little visibility with clients. He will have to move very quickly to fill the gap left by the ‘twins’. Carat International chief executive Jerry Buhlmann is said to be limbering up for the task.

If so, he will have his work cut out. At very least, Aegis’ future independence looks imperilled. At worst, he may be facing the equivalent of the M&C Saatchi defection. On a more modest scale, the fate of CIA, after Chris Ingram – the man integral to its development – left, offers some interesting insights.

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