Havas adds BLM to its underweight UK media presence

It comes as no shock that, so early in 2008, the founders of BLM Media have decided to sell the agency. For much of 2007 Steve Booth, Nick Lockett and Charlie Makin found themselves at the centre of frenzied speculation about BLM being up for sale.

Suitors apparently included WCRS holding company Engine Group, which wanted a media business to give it full service capabilities. But the fact that Havas, the holding company chaired by ebullient “corporate raider” Vincent Bolloré, was victorious should also come as little surprise. Although Havas is the world’s sixth largest media conglomerate, its media presence in the UK falls far short of its bigger rivals.

Havas-owned Media Planning Group (MPG) has had a sterling 12 months, picking up the £20m BBC media account, as well as Axa Sun Life and the launch account for Freesat, the ITV and BBC joint venture.

But, according to Nielsen Media Research figures, MPG was only the 15th biggest media agency in 2006, with billings of £89.5m. Bringing BLM into the Havas Media fold, as part of the Arena Media Communications network, almost doubles the group’s UK presence overnight – some comfort, perhaps, for Bolloré, who has long been stalking Carat and Vizeum owner Aegis but still does not exercise any real power over the rival group.

For BLM, which previously prided itself on being an independent, the deal offers scale, the ability to pitch for global business (although Arena does not yet have any presence in the US) and an estimated £20m windfall for shareholders.

Havas Media chief executive Alfonso Rodes, part of the Rodes family which is the group’s third-largest investor after Bolloré and Sebastian Holdings, says investment in the UK is “key”. “The UK market is now the third largest in the world,” he adds. “It is also a leader in terms of its approach to innovation in media, which is especially true when you look at the digital market.”

Add digital division BLM Quantum to Havas’ existing digital brand Media Contacts and he says Havas Media is ranked as the second biggest digital provider in the UK.

The delayed second coming

But industry observers ask why, 29 years after buying the MPG network, it has taken so long to buy or build a second UK presence. Rodes says Havas’ acquisitions policy is based on “intelligent strategic moves rather than a quest to build size”.

“It’s essential for us to find the right company, both in terms of the business potential and cultural fit, and we were happy to wait until we found the right opportunity,” he adds.

It is almost three years since Bolloré, the world’s 458th richest man last year according to Forbes, wrested control of the media group from chief executive Alain de Pouzilhac in a boardroom coup. But he has had less success with second target Aegis, where he is the largest shareholder with 29.9%. Bolloré – who has made little secret of what he believes are the “synergies” between Aegis and Havas Media – has been outfoxed by the board who have consistently thwarted his attempts to gain board representation, citing conflict between the two competing networks. Bolloré’s proposals have been voted on and defeated four times.

The expanding Arena

Meanwhile, the Arena network continues to grow. Since launching five years ago, it now has a presence in seven other markets including Spain, Portugal and Mexico – it is a top five player in each – and is expected to launch a US arm. How both Bolloré and Havas’ UK ambitions shape up is less certain, but no less exciting.

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