The two faces of Vincent Bollor

The two faces of Vincent Bolloré

France’s advertising industry was rocked last week when billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré, who last year seized control of the nation’s second-biggest advertising group Havas, humiliated his arch rival and Publicis chief Maurice Lévy.

Bolloré poached Paris’s most celebrated creatives Frederic Raillard and Farid Mokart, the co-founders of Publicis-owned agency Marcel, from under Lévy’s nose. Along with a third disaffected Publicis executive, account man Cristophe Lambert, they will set up a new agency, Fred Farid Lambert, which opens its doors in January and is personally backed by Bolloré money.

Bolloré’s move is a blow to Lévy’s hopes of building a creative hotshop to rival London agencies such as Mother and Clemmow Hornby Inge. Even so, Lévy’s heavy investment in Marcel will not be wasted if the agency holds on to the consumer part of the £200m Orange account, which Raillard and Mokart were instrumental in winning. But Havas’ Euro RSCG holds the Orange business account, a potential bridge to the larger consumer side.

However, this is about more than the money. Egos are at stake. Corporate raider Bolloré, who started out at his family’s paper business, has built interests in transport, plastics, fuel distribution and airport ticket scanners to create a £4.3bn empire. His latest toy is advertising and media, a must-have for any business imperialist.

The strategies he employs to leverage his interests have led to speculation on how he will achieve his goals. He engaged in a long and bruising battle to gain control of Havas and his current idée fixe is Aegis, the UK-listed media group of which he owns a 29%.

Without a powerful enough position to launch a full bid, he tried to have two executives elected to the board. Investors were persuaded by the arguments of Aegis’ management that Bolloré’s interests in Havas, which owns rival media agency MPG, represent a conflict of interest. Bolloré would potentially like to merge Aegis’ Carat network with MPG.

Destabilising moves Bolloré has been accused of meddling to cause a crisis at Aegis in Germany. Aegis paid off the head of its central Europe and South African business, Aleksandr Rusicka, after the state prosecutor in Wiesbaden launched an investigation into his activities following allegations of embezzlement.

The prosecutor declined to reveal who made the claims and an Aegis spokeswoman says: “We don’t know who has been making these allegations, we have to stick to the facts.”

But local media have speculated Bolloré was behind the accusations, claiming this may be part of a plan to destabilise Aegis by casting doubt on the effectiveness of its senior management’s anti-corruption policies.

However, most observers think this too machiavellian for Bolloré. One source says: “He doesn’t do small stuff like that.” The implication is he prefers to stick to headline-grabbing stunts, like poaching Raillard and Mokart.

Personality cults Another observer says: “French businesspeople are celebrities and their agendas are sensational. Raillard and Mokart are the first true creative stars to come out of Paris for years and they are real tabloid fodder. Bolloré is a local media hero because he has yanked these two high-profile figures out of Lévy’s clutches.”

Havas’ share price jumped when the news broke, coupled with speculation, later denied, that Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP Group was about to bid for the French company. Bolloré’s tactics are destined to dominate the headlines on both sides of the Channel for some time.