Editorial - Strong results will buy Havas space to breathe

You have to hand it to Alain de Pouzilhac. Just when everybody seemed to have written off a long-term future for his Havas group as an independent entity, he has delivered a set of 2004 figures that confound the Jeremiahs.

With its loss-making subsidiaries sold off and a painful restructure complete, Havas has bounced back with a £63 million profit for last year thanks to a 59 per cent billings growth and a severe cost-cutting process.

The upbeat prognosis for Havas is partly because of a 13.2 per cent operating margin, which compares favourably with that of WPP. At the same time, the group's 2 per cent organic growth rate, which is still not good enough, has been limited by the weak dollar's performance against the euro.

Most importantly, the results give Havas breathing space, a time when it will not need to be preoccupied with Vincent Bollore, the corporate raider who now owns 20 per cent of the company but defies all efforts to uncover his intentions.

The encouraging performance appears to have halted the Bollore bandwagon in its tracks. The cost of gaining control of Havas has suddenly become significantly higher and Bollore's best bet may be to sit out the next few months in the hope that the game swings his way again. Meanwhile, Havas must broaden its client base, expand marketshare and establish a positioning that will secure its future.

This will not be easy. Havas lacks the scale to leverage giant global accounts in the same way that bigger and more powerful rivals can and doubts persist over whether its Power of One integrated offering is sufficiently compelling. The problem is that the Power of One is always likely to appeal to the less sophisticated marketing directors who wish to have their integrated communications orchestrated for them. At the same time, there's the perpetual possibility that the likes of WPP will be able to beat it on price.

Yet it is equally true that the communications business is about confidence.

While Havas failed to gobble up Grey Global Group, it may yet have the opportunity to reinforce its offer with the addition of specialist operations.

No doubt, de Pouzilhac will be keeping tabs on Interpublic, where another bad year could mean bargains to be had.

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