Carat’s $3bn GM win underlines global role for Aegis as rival to marcoms-owned media buyers

For years now Carat owner Aegis has been seen as a tasty item on the menu for one of the acquisitive marcoms companies, possibly as one to be divided up between them as WPP for example, which owns MediaCom, Mindshare and MEC under its GroupM banner, would be prevented from buying the whole lot.

Or the subject of a deal with Havas owner Vincent Bollore, who owns just less than 30 per cent of Aegis through his private holding company.

But General Motors’ CMO Joel Ewanick’s decision to award his $3bn global media planning and buying (one of the biggest such accounts in the world) to Carat at the expense of Publicis Groupe’s Starcom, and Interpublic in Latin America, is a sign that one of the world’s most important advertisers is very happy with the notion of a big global media specialist. And, by extension, would not be best pleased if it disappeared from the map into the clutches of someone trying to sell him other stuff too.

Now we wait to see what Unilever will come up with as it reviews its even bigger $6bn global media account, currently largely in the hands of WPP’s Mindshare and Omnicom’s PHD. Unilever media boss Luis Di Como will have been keeping a close eye on Ewanick’s media musings.

As for Aegis the GM win is a huge boost for its CEO Jerry Buhlmann. Buhlmann has been a CEO who, as they say, has been easy to underestimate. A founder of mid-sized UK media independent BBJ, he stayed at Carat when his agency was sold, initially playing second or third fiddle to UK boss Mark Craze, now at Havas-owned MPG.

But during his time as the big boss at Aegis (he succeeded number cruncher Robert Lerwill in 2008) the company has sailed on despite the odd squall from a spectacular Spanish bad debt and some strange doings in North America, both of which originated before his time as CEO.

Last year he pleased shareholders by selling low growth research arm Synovate to French researcher Ipsos for £525m, leaving Aegis with Carat, smaller media network Vizeum and Isobar, originally a digital media agency but now one with creative ambitions too, and a bag full of cash.

A bidder could still spoil Buhlmann’s party of course, whatever Joel Ewanick thinks. And Buhlmann and Aegis have to persuade a sceptical audience of their peers and some analysts that they can make a profit from the GM account. Buhlmann has admitted there’s a performance element in the deal: “We have challenging performance targets to hit but ones that we are very confident we can hit.”

Which may be why confirmation of Carat’s GM win took so long, it was first revealed by MAA columnist Stuart Smith back in early December.

But credit where credit’s due and Buhlmann and Aegis/Carat (not least Carat’s new North American management) deserve a lot of it. Now, about that Unilever account..

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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.