Who will blink first in the tussle for Aegis?

Curiouser and curiouser. The battle for the body and soul of media buying giant Aegis took a new turn this week with the emergence of a shadowy ‘counter-bidder’, apparently determined to give Publicis Groupe supremo Maurice Lévy more of a run for his money.

Lévy, it will be remembered, recently indicated an interest in buying Aegis (composed of media buying houses Carat and Vizeum, plus research company Synovate). He did so in the full knowledge that Vincent Bolloré (who counts the chairmanship of rival Havas among his many interests) was already busily stake-building in Aegis via his Financière du Loch investment vehicle. Lévy was careful to make clear a) the maximum price he was interested in paying, 140p a share (it’s now over 145p); and b) the fact that he was in no way interested in entering a bidding war. Aegis would make Publicis Groupe the largest media buyer in the world in a sector where scale really counts. On the other hand, he could encounter problems with a major client, P&G, over putting two of its roster media buyers, Carat and Starcom, under one roof. Furthermore, Publicis has little or no interest in the research business and Synovate, though well regarded, is not in itself of a scale to make Lévy change his mind. So, Aegis is useful rather than essential as a corporate acquisition.

Now Lévy’s resolve is likely to be tested on two fronts. First, US investment boutique Hellman & Friedman has emerged as a potential counter-bidder. H&F was an unsuccessful suitor for Y&R, which eventually fell to WPP Group. This time, the two have teamed up for what might be a break-up bid. At all events, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell seems very interested in acquiring Synovate, which has key growth businesses in Asia and the Middle East.

However, it is difficult to gauge just how serious this bidding war is. Remember, neither Lévy nor H&F has actually tabled a formal bid: they have simply persuaded Aegis that their interest is sufficient to warrant opening its books. H&F’s arrival at the table is a complication for Lévy because it means that what was confidential information on the bid target now becomes equally available to a second party. In other words, he has lost his edge.

More worrying for Lévy, however, must be the greatly increased presence of Bolloré on the Aegis share register. Having built up his stake (at the last count) to over 12 per cent, Bolloré is in a commanding position to influence Aegis’ fate. Now the company’s leading shareholder, he has carved out a position where he can prevent whoever wins from delisting the company. Nuisance value indeed, since it would make restructuring and the cost-savings attending it very difficult to achieve without his compliance.

Though Bolloré’s motives remain for the most part cloaked in mystery, he is unlikely to be a Lévy fan: he is known to have an interest in acquiring Carat as a global fit for Havas’s MPG network. If Lévy goes hostile, Bolloré could force the price up and sell out at a massive profit. And if Lévy withdraws? Aegis may well find itself with a much reduced share price and an intractable, ruthless customer left on its books. Whatever happens, a very interesting round of corporate poker is shaping up.

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