Sorrell Eyes Havas, Grey Global -- and Headlines

10 February 2004

WPP Group's Sir Martin Sorrell, unquestionably the highest profile ceo among the planet's top ten agency groups, has never been averse to hitting the headlines.

No exception was last week's interview in UK ad journal Campaign. Sorrell's built-in headline sensor shot off the Röntgen scale when asked about prospects for future acquisitions. Especially the vulnerability of the smaller global holding companies.

Are the days of agency mega-takeovers dead and gone, enticed his canny interviewer? Sorrell's Pavlovian instincts kicked-in: "It's naive to say there's nothing left to acquire. As clients, media owners and retailers continue to consolidate, inevitably it means the same for us," he said.

The interview turned to Havas and Grey Global Group, each the object of the WPP boss's past disparagement. At a Goldman Sachs media conference in New York last October, Sorrell got his headline fix by highlighting the vulnerability of both. Havas' situation was likened to that of Cordiant before it crumbled into the outstretched arms of WPP, while Grey was at risk because of its reliance on Procter & Gamble.

And again in last week's interview Sorrell opined of Havas: "Strategically, its position is vulnerable. Havas has to decide where it is, given what's happened client-wise. [Media Planning Group, Havas' media network] wants to be a top-five media player. It has to decide how to get there."

The reference to MPG was calculated: the shop is still reeling from the hammer-blow last year when Orange switched its £58m media planning and buying business to Interpublic-owned Initiative Media.

What about Grey, enquired the interviewer? "People continually ask questions about Grey but I think Ed [Meyer -- Grey's chairman/president/ceo] is immortal," Sorrell responded.

"If I was Ed, I would carry on forever. He controls the business, he's great at what he does. When we hired Charlotte Beers [former chair/ceo of Ogilvy & Mather], people said that she and Ed were the two ceos of Procter & Gamble agencies who had the biggest share of voice in Cincinnati. Ten years on and Ed's still in that position," he said.

But Grey as a takeover target? How would Sorrell resolve the clash of interest between WPP's Unilever business and Grey's P&G? "There is nothing in the conflict policies of Unilever or P&G that would prevent the two coexisting in one group," Sorrell insisted.

And if Havas/Grey remain independent -- or fall to another predator -- would this impede WPP's expansion plans?

Sorrell parried that one with his usual skilled ease. "No, organic growth is the best way to bring value to our operation -- it's the priority, in fact. WPP's big enough. We don't need another 69,000 people. We don't need to operate in another 102 countries. The issue is continuing to improve the quality of what we do."

Data sourced from: BrandRepublic (UK); additional content by WARC staff