Agency: CHI & Partners
By ALASDAIR REID, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 13 June 1997 12:00AM
Don’t ever play poker with Martin Sorrell. He might move in
mysterious, inscrutable ways but he usually ends up holding all the
cards. Just what is he up to this time? Last week, he emerged rather
rapidly out of left field to pick up a 14.4 per cent stake in CIA Group.
Is this the prelude to a ’Victor Kiam’ takeover - he likes the product
so much he has to buy the company?
Or is there something more complex at work? Theories are cheap.
Surprisingly, though, the most obvious analysis - that WPP intends to
buy CIA as an off-the-shelf group media buying vehicle - is the least
For the past couple of years, Sorrell hasn’t hidden his desire to merge
the media operations of the two main WPP agencies, J. Walter Thompson
and Ogilvy and Mather. But little has happened on the ground, save for
some ’over my dead body’ posturing from senior media managers at both
agencies. What better way to move things forward than to borrow a
Saatchi and Saatchi blueprint? Saatchis created Zenith by buying the Ray
Morgan and Partners media independent, pouring group billings in to it
and changing the nameplate.
Sorrell knows Saatchis’ history and is the most accomplished dealmaker
in ad history, having built the industry’s two biggest empires. As
Saatchis’ finance director he engineered acquisitions - from Compton
through to Bates - that Maurice and Charles had only dreamed of. And
when he parted company with the brothers, he started again on his own
Is he doing a Zenith? Well, perhaps not. CIA is bigger and more complex
than RMP. Although CIA has been successful in developing joint ventures
and juggling several media brands, these have tended to be in
partnership with small agencies. Absorbing WPP billings would be far
more painful, leading to an inevitable loss of existing CIA clients. Nor
is CIA like O&M - a hostile takeover would be far harder because the
board directors, including Chris Ingram, own almost 40 per cent of the
Ingram, according to several sources, doesn’t much care for Sorrell, nor
is he driven by a desire to sell up and get rich quick.
WPP talks of forging a working alliance. It’s hard to see how that might
work. It would only make sense for CIA if it could use WPP to gain a
foothold in the US market. But WPP doesn’t need CIA there - in the US
and Asia Pacific the WPP agencies’ media product is as good as any on
Two other theories are more credible: first, the Machiavellian
assumption that the move is designed to focus the minds of senior
managers at O&M and JWT and, second, that Sorrell isn’t doing a Zenith
at all, he’s doing a ’Bruce Crawford’. Crawford, the chairman of
Omnicom, is the one man in advertising that Sorrell really rates. It was
Crawford who decided, many years ago, to take a significant minority
stake in the Carat holding company, Aegis.
Did Crawford see Carat as Omnicom’s Zenith? Not a bit of it. He wanted
to understand the media buying business and the quickest way was to buy
a seat on the board, gain access to the books, listen and learn. Then,
as Omnicom has done, you can feel confident about setting up your own
operation from scratch.
It was no surprise to hear Ingram saying last week that he had no
intention of inviting Sorrell to join the board. Whatever Ingram has to
sell, he doesn’t want to let it go cheaply. But, compared with Sorrell,
the capable and wily Ingram is still a relative novice at this sort of
thing. Sorrell’s next move - his response to that rejection - will go a
long way to signalling his long-term intentions.
Sorrell might see CIA as a damned good investment, something to set
against a rainy day. He may sit tight and let the dividends roll in. But
don’t bet on it.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
Agency: CHI & Partners