Let the battle commence. The silly season has – for the third time in succession – taken on a deadly earnestness. Two years ago, it was the shark-fest around Cordiant’s moribund body; last year, Grey Global came under the hammer; this year, Aegis looks like the sacrificial victim.
As the largest media buying and planning group in the world, Aegis, which owns Carat, Vizeum and research company Synovate – and boasts revenue of about &£750m – is a tempting morsel for any of the marketing services premier league attempting their next act of one-upmanship in the game of global consolidation.
Interesting, then, that the company which has put Aegis into play is Havas – not one of the big four and, as recent events have shown, a group with abundant problems of its own. Or to be precise, Havas’ main shareholder (22 per cent) and non-executive chairman Vincent Bolloré. The distinction might seem slight, but it is important. For Bolloré, a corporate raider with diverse interests, has used money from his other financial vehicles – not the paper money of Havas – to secure an initial six per cent stake in Aegis which, allegedly, he aims to raise to 15 per cent when buying conditions are appropriate.
What exactly are his aims, and why has he acted in this way so soon after securing control of Havas? Bolloré always insisted – despite a track record to the contrary – that Havas was not a share-price play but a long-term commitment. Stake-building in Aegis might seem to reinforce his statement of intent. Certainly Aegis would be a valuable prize if set alongside Havas’s own media buying operation, Media Planning Group, and collaboration might well have benefits for both. MPG is a well respected but patchy network and could complement Vizeum. On the other side, Aegis is certainly global and has a robust financial record, but the future doesn’t look so rosy. It has lost key personnel in Asia; and Carat, in particular, has had a rough time (the loss of Telefonica in Spain, Vodafone in Germany, major account erosion in France thanks to the KR Media breakaway, plus management upheaval in the UK).
But that said, the idea of Aegis’ Jerry Buhlman and David Verkin sitting around a boardroom table with MPG’s Rodes family seems a bit fanciful.
In any case, how on Earth does Bolloré plan to get hold of Aegis if it all goes hostile? The City is already speculating on other bidders, namely Omnicom and WPP Group, being flushed out – which no doubt accounts for why the Aegis share price at one point rocketed from about 90p to 125p.
In fact, a bidding war looks unlikely at this stage, precisely because Aegis has become so expensive. Therefore Bolloré has already achieved first-mover advantage on a highly desirable company. There is perhaps a parallel here with WPP’s increasingly predatory stake-building in, and eventual acquisition of, CIA/Tempus between 1997 and 2001. But an important difference, too. Buying the key stake of disgruntled CIA director Marco Benatti leveraged Sir Martin Sorrell’s position immensely. There is likely to be no such Trojan horse at Aegis, whose shares are much more evenly held. Nor will Bolloré find it easy to force himself onto the board of a UK company as he did so spectacularly at Havas.