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Publicis Groupe played all the aces in its ten-year deal with Dentsu

The only surprise about the dissolution of the Publicis Groupe/Dentsu strategic alliance is the speed with which it has happened. Less than two weeks ago, PG chief executive Maurice Lévy (pictured) was telling shareholders he couldn’t pay them a better dividend because he had to hoard every last euro in case the Japanese wanted their money back.

In point of fact, the decision to terminate must already have been made, even though the strategic alliance of ten years still had some months to run. Dentsu has announced it had sold almost all its remaining 11 per cent shareholding (and 15 per cent voting rights) back to Publicis for €644m. Dentsu retains a two per cent stake for the time being, but it’s of little consequence.

Dentsu made a profit of £17m on its investment. Not much of a recompense – it must be said – for a strategic alliance which, from the Japanese point of view, has been largely a sham.

Right from the beginning, Dentsu found itself wrong-footed. It originally founded the alliance with BCom3, a combination of Leo Burnett and MacManus Group, only to find that Publicis had crashed the party by acquiring BCom3. Where previously it might have expected to play a more preponderant role, the addition of Publicis fundamentally changed the balance of power. And reduced Dentsu to an (even more) passive role as a minority shareholder in PG, albeit with some powerful voting rights.

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Stripped to essentials, the alliance was supposed to bolster PG’s then-weak position in the Far East, and supercharge Dentsu’s underperformance in North America and Europe.

In practice, it was very much more favourable to Publicis, which had in any case benefited from a massive injection of cash to bankroll acquisitions.

Most mortifying of all, Dentsu eventually found itself not only in direct competition with its ally for scarce North American digital assets – but coming off worse. Notably in the case of the Razorfish acquisition, where Dentsu put a heady $700m on the table, but rapidly found itself outplayed by Publicis – which enjoyed an inside track with the then-owner of the digital agency, Microsoft, and irritatingly managed to buy the agency for less money.

Dentsu soon signalled its growing disenchantment by forcing a sale of four per cent of Publicis stock for €218m. Not long thereafter, it showed new and uncharacteristically aggressive intent in Western markets with the unveiling of Dentsu Network West – captained by US Dentsu chief Tim Andree. Where, for years previously, Dentsu had got things spectacularly wrong in the USA, Andree has got at least one big thing spectacularly right. Had he done no more than acquire McGarrybowen – feted by both AdAge and AdWeek as their current agency of the year after a string of high-profile business wins – Tokyo would have good reason to be hugely grateful to him.

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In short, Dentsu has outgrown its foreign markets inferiority complex, which gave birth to the alliance in the first place. While Publicis now has an urgent reason to dispose of the corpse as soon as possible. Whoever eventually takes over the hot-seat from Maurice Lévy wouldn’t have thanked him much for bequeathing them an embittered major shareholder.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.
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