Maurice Levy’s Publicis Groupe needs a big deal if it’s ever to catch WPP and Omnicom

We’re assuming that Publicis Groupe’s Maurice Levy, who postponed his retirement last year, does indeed want to catch WPP and Omnicom but that seems to be the message from the string of (admittedly small) acquisitions the company has made since the ad business began to emerge, blinking, from recession.

Publicis Groupe has just bought a majority stake in Indian healthcare agency Watermelon, possibly an indication of the growing influence of Francois Sarkozy, the French president’s younger brother, who sold his healthcare agency ACE to PG last year.

This comes hard on the heels of PG buying London agencies Chemistry and Kitkatt Nohr and some small companies in China.

None of these will materially affect the gap between PG and marcoms leader WPP and second-placed Omnicom (PG is about half the size of $15bn plus WPP with Omnicom just behind).

But every little helps of course. Levy might argue that the various companies are pursuing different strategies these days, so size comparisons are invidious.

WPP, according to its CEO Sir Martin Sorrell, is focusing on data in the belief that such information is the one thing that clients will always need to buy. Providing data though is still a people-heavy business which is one reason why the smaller Omnicom (whose emphasis still seems to be on its big creative agency networks BBDO, DDB and TBWA) still makes the most profit.

Sorrell has also focussed on buying as many agencies as he can in emerging markets because they are entering a period in which advertising spending (traditional and digital) is booming, just like it did in the West from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So WPP has recently bought Vietnam’s Who Digital to fold into its Ogilvy One outpost in Ho Chi Minh City.

Levy too has been wielding his cheque book to some effect in emerging markets, buying 49 per cent of Brazil’s Talent agency last year. PG has the advantage (in some people’s eyes anyway) of being a rather more relaxed owner than WPP. It pioneered the 49 per cent route a decade ago with London hotshop Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Levy has also invested more dramatically than his rivals in digital, buying Razorfish and Digitas.

So some clear differences are emerging between the way Sorrell, Levy and Omnicom’s John Wren see the marcoms world developing.

WPP may own four big creative networks (O&M, JWT, Y&R and Grey) but the focus seems to be on data (WPP’s Kantar operation which houses its last big acquisition, UK researcher TNS), media (which it seems to see as a branch of the data business, calling it media investment) and emerging markets.

Omnicom recently announced it is to pursue partnerships with big tech firms like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo rather than build or buy its own digital players. So its strategy seems to be good, old advertising.

Levy’s seems to be digital, consultancy (particularly healthcare) and emerging markets.

But most companies in these markets (with the exception of the likes of Razorfish which PG bought from Microsoft for $500m) are quite small. A game-changing deal would probably have to come from somewhere else.

Which brings us back to perennial takeover targets media buyer Aegis, smaller French rival Havas and the once-mighty Interpublic, now in fourth place in the marcoms stakes behind PG.

Interpublic is finally recovering after a fraught few years and is big enough in its home market of the US anyway. The more you think about it the better the fit with Havas looks.

With Euro RSCG and media buyer MPG (and a bright new CEO in Euro RSCG’s David Jones) Havas would boost Publicis Groupe up to about $11bn, close enough to have Sorrell and Wren looking over their shoulder even more than they’re doing at the moment.

Now there may be inscrutable French political reasons why Publicis and Havas, rivals for decades, would not merge or wouldn’t be allowed to merge. Maybe Levy and Havas chairman Vincent Bollore don’t like each other.

But it’s an intriguing prospect.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.