Aegis saga: Who wants it this week?

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Monsieur Bollore is in, and he doesn't want out; Monsieur Levy is out, but could still be tempted back in; and Sir Martin wants in, but only if he can get out again.

Yes, you could be forgiven for being confused by the three-way chess match that is the battle for Aegis-especially after this week's maneuvers by the key players.

Maurice Levy's Publicis Groupe, which was the first to express interest in buying Aegis, and thus put the game in motion, appears to be backing away from the table. Late on Oct. 14, it put out a statement that said it's decided not to make an offer for the London-based Aegis Group.

But Publicis added some nifty caveats to allow it to get back in the game if it perceives the time to be right. It said it may reverse its latest decision if a third party announces a firm intention to make an offer for Aegis, or if the Aegis board recommends it make an offer. If it hadn't added such a caveat, Publicis would have to wait six months before it would be allowed to make an offer under U.K. law.

Martin Sorrell's WPP Group, meanwhile, confirmed it is in discussions with a private-equity partner to explore the feasibility of a cash offer for Aegis Group. But it also stressed that its primary interest is in Synovate, Aegis' research unit, so it's possible Mr. Sorrell would buy in and then sell off most of Aegis' assets to others. WPP's partner is San Francisco-based private equity firm Hellman & Friedman.

Building bloc

Havas Chairman Vincent Bollore, however, is already heavily invested in Aegis and continued to snap up shares this week. On the morning of Oct. 14, his stake reached 15.4%. He had begun the week with around 14% and bought steadily all week.

So he's in, but is he looking to get out? Apparently not. His strategy is to build a shareholder bloc substantial enough to prevent or obstruct a takeover of Aegis, according to an executive familiar with Mr. Bollore's thinking.

As the last large independent media group, Aegis could be an important partner for Mr. Bollore's Havas, which needs to strengthen its media buying and planning group, MPG. According to the executive, Mr. Bollore favors a partnership rather than a merger of Havas with Aegis.

A spokesman for Mr. Bollore would not comment.

In the U.K., a shareholder with 25% of the voting rights in a company can block certain resolutions brought before shareholders. An accumulation of 10% of the voting rights-a threshold Mr. Bollore passed earlier this month-brings rights such as the ability to call special shareholder meetings.

Mr. Bollore is expected to continue to buy Aegis shares to enable him to pursue his interests. "The timing of the next few days is very important," said the executive.

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