CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - CORDIANT. Why the future isn't looking too bright for Cordiant

The likelihood of Cordiant remaining a major player is in doubt. Consider this scenario. A worldwide advertising agency with a less-than-exciting track record demerges. Enjoying its new-found freedom and a buoyant economy, business ticks over, modest growth is achieved and its traditionally dull profit margins begin to show some useful improvement.

But this is no recipe for a dynamic future that will excite its shareholders.

So the management decides it is time to ratchet the business up a few notches. It diversifies into financial public relations, design and healthcare at no small cost. It advocates an integrated approach to client needs and, over the next two years, revenues in the US more than double. In the UK they triple and in Asia-Pacific they grow by two-thirds. Only in continental Europe is growth anything but dramatic.

Sadly this meteoric rise in revenues is not reflected in profits. In North America profit margins collapse from 13.1 per cent to 6.5 per cent. In Asia-Pacific they fall back to just 3.1 per cent after a one-year untypical and inexplicably high performance of 14.7 per cent. In continental Europe margins slump to 4 per cent. Only in the UK are double-figure margins achieved, albeit a long way below the benchmark of 15 per cent.

What happens next? Major components of the under-performing regions of Asia-Pacific and continental Europe try to buy themselves out. That may not seem to matter too much, given the poor profit margins in those territories, although they may have strategic value for their creative reputations and geographical spread. Then the recently acquired company that has contributed a useful chunk of the UK's enhanced profits starts heading for the exit door too. That sounds more worrying.

So what about the original core business in the UK? It is called Bates UK. It's hardly ever made any money in the past decade, has borrowed bucket-loads of cash from its bankers, most of which has been passed on to other thirsty subsidiaries of Cordiant, and it hasn't even filed its accounts for 2001 by the extended deadline of 31 January 2003. Now we hear that the agency has probably lost its Woolworth's business and is out of the running for the Royal Mail account. Not the best of news when Cordiant is reviewing its banking facilities before signing off last year's accounts.

What next? Leaving aside the difficulty Cordiant and its chief executive, David Hearn, face in securing anything like a good price for divesting or reducing its holdings in Financial Dynamics, Scholz & Friends and George Patterson Bates, the hard truth is that soon there won't be much left apart from the rump of Bates and Healthworld. Even the residual 25 per cent stake in Zenith is destined to pass to Publicis before long.

And while it was bad luck to have acquired Financial Dynamics just before the stock market crashed - causing its lucrative financial takeovers and IPO business to evaporate - the reality is that Cordiant never paid enough attention to Bates. It lost much of its glamour many years ago and in the UK has been bogged down with low-margin, labour-intensive retail accounts for far too long. Only last April, the agency trumpeted its position as "a leading retail agency" - something that most competitors would have preferred to keep quiet about.

Bates UK only once achieved an operating profit margin above 1 per cent in the past six years' published accounts (admittedly, the figures may have been distorted by intra-group charges and as Cordiant failed to respond to any of our calls aimed at getting the truth, we still don't know what happened in 2001 or 2002). Yet doubtless there are parts of the network that do good work and make respectable profits. However, Cordiant's newly appointed finance director, Andy Borland, must now be wondering whether it is too late to resuscitate the brand into a powerful and profitable worldwide force.

Would anyone buy Cordiant for Bates, or even Bates alone? The only serious beneficiary could be Havas, or Hakuhodo. Despite the fact that 44 per cent of Havas group revenue came from the US in 2001, the US produced only 6 pert cent of worldwide operating income. Bates might bolster that.

But even if there was scope for a Havas merger, it seems less likely Havas would want the Fitch design outfit or Healthworld. Havas already owns Conran Design Group and the healthcare business it acquired as part of the now defunct Snyder group. A perfect match you might think, but why should Havas borrow money to acquire competitor businesses that are probably struggling in a recession - unless, of course, you follow the Publicis example, and enforce immediate mergers or closures irrespective of the longer-term consequences.

Anyway, companies such as Fitch and Financial Dynamics must be getting a bit tired of being sold on from one disenchanted owner to another. Indeed, that single characteristic alone probably militates against the management becoming really committed to a more integrated operation such as Bates would favour.

Financial Dynamics has had at least three former owners, including Broad Street Group, BDDP Groupe and Lighthouse, while Fitch was the victim of a shareholders' revolt, followed by a brief period at Lighthouse too.

Small wonder Financial Dynamics' top executives Nick Miles and Hugh Morrison suffered from itchy feet after being sold to Cordiant and subsequently left under something of a cloud. The moral here is not to buy second-hand goods (and certainly not at top-drawer prices) - a moral to which Havas may also now subscribe after the Snyder saga.

Maybe the most likely outcome will be for Cordiant to muddle on in a mire of mediocrity, as bits of the group gradually fall off like tiles from a worn-out space shuttle. Whatever happens, the likelihood of Cordiant being with us as a major player a year from now seems to be diminishing very fast.

- Bob Willott is editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence (www.fintellect.com) and a special professor at the University of Nottingham Business School.

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