Next moves in agency dance focus on Alain, Ed, Michael

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If there's one thing clear from Publicis Groupe's agreement to acquire Bcom3 Group, it's that it came about (whatever the driving forces on a macro level) because of the personal rapport between Publicis Chairman Maurice Levy and Bcom3 CEO Roger Haupt.

That rapport chimes with the needs of clients or Wall Street, of course. And deals do happen without personal rapport (i.e., when WPP Group's Sir Martin Sorrell acquired Chris Ingram's Tempus). But it seems inevitable the ad agency world will shrink to five or six major holding companies from eight within the next year. A more interesting analysis is to look at the three men that now need to act.

Alain de Pouzilhac will be the one whose mind is most exercised right now. Mr. Levy, his arch rival, has stolen a giant march on him, and suddenly Publicis is twice the size of Havas. It was bad enough before the Bcom3 shock news: Havas had produced disappointing earnings reports compared with Publicis.

Previously an acquirer, Mr. de Pouzilhac now may find himself prey and not hunter, on the receiving end of a bid from one of the Big Four rather than sniffing out his own next target. He is a clever man, underrated by many in an Anglo-Saxon dominated world. But Mr. de Pouzilhac is about to be sorely tested.

No one should underestimate Grey Global Group's Ed Meyer. The septuagenarian continues to exert more control over Grey than any other individual executive does over any other agency network. That he owns roughly a third of the stock and has voting rights over another third explains a lot. Mr. Meyer's fiercely independent stance had rewarded Grey's shareholders with apparently inexorable quarter upon quarter growth. But the late `90s brought the twin threat of recession and other people's consolidations.

Once it is publicly held, however, it is no longer enough for a company to succeed on its own terms. It has to perform well in relation to the other companies in its sector. Therefore, because the quickening consolidation we have seen over the past few years has been accepted as "positive" for the companies involved, there has been a negative impact on the isolationist Grey by default.

Of course, Procter & Gamble's presence on Grey's roster will influence its potential merger partners. WPP and Interpublic Group of Cos. look difficult because of their links to Unilever.

How Cordiant Communications Group's Michael Bungey must wish he had that problem. His lack of global accounts has made Cordiant the comparative basket case of the remaining groups. Cordiant's is the only case that could be described as a fire sale. It is impossible to see how Mr. Bungey can be the buyer he always insists he is.

If I was forced to plump for the next move, it would be Cordiant. That's because Mr. Bungey is under the most pressure from investors of anyone in the sector. He will lose his job if he cannot find a solution. The trouble is that solution may also cost him that same job.

Whatever happens next, you can be sure it's as much personal as business.

Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of Ad Age Global and Creativity.

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