Publicis Groupe’s Levy gets career extension to 75 – plenty of time to wrap up a deal for Aegis

Most commentators see French tycoon Vincent Bollore, chairman of Havas and the biggest individual shareholder in both Havas (33 per cent) and Aegis (26.5 per cent) as the key player in the unfolding drama of media buyer Aegis, which is discussing the sale of its Synovate market research firm to French research giant Ipsos for around £500m.

But there’s another senior Frenchman in the wings, Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy whose board has just increased its retirement age from 70 to 75, handy for Levy who’s 69.

PG says this is to ensure a ‘smooth transition,” presumably to COO and newly-annointed boss of the Publicis Worldwide agency Jean-Yves Naouri. But Naouri has served a long apprenticeship already and it’s hard to see what good another five years are going to do him.

The real reason, one suspects, is to allow Levy a little more time to fulfil his ambition to move PG up from third place in the global marcoms stakes to at least the same level as WPP and Omnicom, currently both about half as big again as PG.

Aegis would perform this task very nicely (with or without Synovate). Levy would undoubtedly prefer it without the latter, regarding research companies as yesterday’s news in comparison to his own collection of data-based digital media businesses in VivaKi.

So if Synovate is sold (to either Ipsos, German researcher GfK or even world leader Nielsen) Levy will certainly be involved in any auction for the world’s only big independent media agency network.

But does Pubicis Groupe actually need Aegis? It already owns ZenithOptimedia and Starcom MediaVest as well as Vivaki’s Digitas and Razorfish.

Well WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell didn’t really need UK researcher TNS (the ‘S’ is from Sofres, a French company) but he paid £1.1bn for it in 2008, thwarting a planned merger between TNS and GfK.

But what about M. Bollore?

He can’t lose of course, the Aegis share price (and his considerable investment) is heading north rapidly and with his big stake in the company he may be able to thwart any bid he doesn’t like or make his own, as he’s half way to owning a majority already.

Aegis would be a better fit with Havas than WPP, Omnicom or Publicis Groupe as Havas, which owns Euro RSCG and Arnold Worldwide, is under-powered in the media sector with only Media Planning Group (MPG).

Bollore would undoubtedly like to rival his old adversary Levy in terms of big French-owned marcoms companies and he needs a big deal to do so, just as Levy does to catch WPP and Omnicom.

And Aegis is a French company by birth, being based around the Carat network (it also owns media buyer Vizeum as well as Synovate) which started in life as a French media broker (buying ad space itself and selling it on to clients).

There will be non-French contenders too, WPP shares slid the other day on fears that Sorrell wil try to buy Synovate or Aegis or maybe both. WPP’s spinners in the City are already telling hacks that the company’s debt is coming down (it reached a vertiginous £3bn after the TNS deal, just as the credit crunch hit) and its growth prospects are good.

US giant Interpublic is under-powered in media too for a company of its size with Initiative and Universal McCann. Japan’s Dentsu doesn’t seem to have a global media operation at all so can’t be ignored.

It’s early days yet and Aegis may decide not to sell Synovate (fearful of the consequences) and even if it does may try to thwart the circling predators by doing a big deal of its own.

But at the moment the two key players seem to be Frenchmen Levy and Bollore.

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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.