Opinion: Perspective - Roth will need more than charm to revitalise IPG

Michael Roth is, by all accounts, a rather convincing adman. At least compared with his predecessor, David Bell. In the two months since he stepped into the Interpublic chief executive role, Roth has generated a good press - even off-the-record - from his senior management. And there aren't many network or holding company bosses who can say that.

Apparently, among the troops who have been given the Roth treatment there is a sense of relief; after so much bitterness and teeth-gnashing, the view is that here is a man who might actually do something to address IPG's embedded problems. Roth was once described by Donny Deutsch as "one of those brilliant thugs": a charmer who's also a do-er, a relatively rare combination. And already he's negotiated himself a pay rise to a handsome $1.1 million-a-year salary, so the board seems happy.

So far so good, then. Add in the global Nokia win for Lowe and last week's Intel triumph for McCann Erickson (though Roth himself played no large part in these successes) and his IPG almost seemed to be on a roll. The Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into the company's financial mis-management seemed to recede a little as new-business good news dominated the headlines.

But what a difference a week can make. By the end of last week, IPG was admitting that it had uncovered a few more financial misdemeanours - absolutely scandalous for a company under such pressure and scrutiny on this subject.

IPG has just discovered that it might have "improperly recognised" $145 million in revenue and $25 million in net income. Whether this discovery is evidence of Roth's judicious focus on IPG's control system, or simply a reminder of shabby corporate governance, is not clear. But it certainly undermines what had been looking like a fresh start for the company.

Now General Motors has put its massive £2.8 billion US media account up for pitch; IPG, through its General Motors' Mediaworks dedicated buying agency, handles the bulk of GM's media buying. News of the review knocked 5 per cent off the already-limp IPG share price and prompted a rather panicky defence by Roth, assuring the world that GM accounts for less than 1 per cent of IPG's global revenue.

The two events combine to underline exactly how far Roth has to go before IPG even gets close to presenting a convincing holding company case. It will take a long time - if ever - for IPG to shake off the bad odour of financial mismanagement and impropriety, yet the ability of the holding company to position itself as a viable and trustworthy partner of multinational blue-chips has never been greater. To get there Roth will need an awful lot more than slick charm. Convincing GM to stay put and sorting out once and for all a transparent fiscal structure might make for a second fresh start. But Roth won't be given many such chances to get it right.

Sitting watching the parade of award-winning ads and the hugely enjoyable romp through the archives at last week's British Television Advertising Awards, two thoughts stuck.

First, the power of a fantastic TV commercial will never be dimmed by the personal video recorder. Great TV ads will always capture attention because sure as Easter eggs is Easter eggs, some of them will be an awful lot better than the programmes in our glorious digital multichannel future. Second, every marketing director should be sent a DVD of the winning work; there are few better demonstrations of the impact of advertising.

OK, perhaps there wasn't a real depth of excellent work on display. And perhaps some of the archive stuff knocked spots off a lot of today's TV ads. But the calibre of BTAA's roll-call of winners showcases the advertising business at its best.

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