Maurice Levy and Martin Sorrell Escalate Rivalry With War of the Words

A Week's Worth of Denials, Accusations and Insults

By Published on .

Brit-Franco relations have never been the greatest, but the heads of two of the biggest ad holding companies are taking that age-old contentious relationship to a new level.

Martin Sorrell and Maurice Levy
Martin Sorrell and Maurice Levy

For the past week, Publicis Chief Maurice Levy and WPP head Martin Sorrell have been locked in a sniping match stemming from last week's resurrection of a rumor that Publicis is plotting a purchase of Interpublic Group of Cos. Funnily, the head of the supposed acquisition target , Michael Roth, has been totally mum on the matter, while the accusations and insults between his two European counterparts are escalating higher than Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower combined. Messrs. Levy and Sorrell have been arguing via the press, using The Drum's website to vent.

It's been a bit of a frenzy, so we wouldn't blame you if you missed a beat. In a few easy steps, we're going to catch you up on the past week. Grab your popcorn, folks, because the way this is going, we're going to see more claws out of these two than we would in an episode of "Real Housewives of New York."

Friday, Aug. 3: A Financial Times blog post citing "usually knowledgeable sources" said Publicis was weighing an offer to buy Interpublic at a price "in the region of $15 a share," with a total price tag of $6 billion "or more." The blog said sources indicated a deal "has been under preparation for six months."

Friday, Aug. 3: As Ad Age reported, Interpublic's stock surged on the news of the deal. It saw its stock jump 13.3% Aug. 3 to close at $10.97 in heavy trading. The companies remained mum on the matter and analysts were split on whether the rumor had merit and on whether a potential deal would be a good idea.

Sunday, Aug. 5: Publicis released a statement denying any talks. "Following the speculations published by FT.com Alphaville and their resulting widespread publicity, Publicis Groupe denies having engaged in any discussions with Interpublic Group and confirms that it has not commissioned any bank to undertake any such discussions," the company said.

Monday, Aug. 6: The Financial Times issued an apology, and updated its post. Said the FT: "Apologies, but our usually knowledgeable sources turned out to be lacking on this occasion."

Monday, Aug. 6: The apology and the Publicis statement apparently do not sit well with WPP head Sir Martin, and he speaks out about it. He told The Drum: "You have to look at the Publicis statement very carefully because it's more interesting for what it doesn't say than what it does. I would challenge its veracity because it says in the statement that Publicis has not had any contact with IPG and it doesn't say when. And are they saying they've never had a conversation with IPG? We know that to be untrue. So that is one thing. The second thing, to say that you haven't commissioned a bank doesn't mean anything. You might be in conversation with a bank, you might be in discussion with a bank. ... I wouldn't dismiss those rumours as they are trying to dismiss them. They are obviously trying to negate the impact on their share price."

Wednesday, Aug. 8: After reading his competitor's comments, the typically gentlemanly Levy got nasty. "I personally couldn't care less about Martin Sorrell, and what he thinks or says about Publicis Groupe is always rubbish," Mr. Levy told The Drum, adding that Mr. Sorrell is "foolish" for publicly challenging the truth behind the official statement.

In turn, this prompted some commentary from Sir Martin. He said: "Maurice's typically articulate response fails to answer the implied question. Has he had talks with Roth and/or IPG or not?"

Nothing so far today. But we'll keep you posted. It's your move, Monsieur Levy.

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