OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It's hard to believe that a month or so from now - if the good Lord's willing and the interest rates don't rise, to paraphrase an old saying of the American South - the Cordiant Communications Group likely will have gone the way of the Bcom3 Group, Panoramic Communications and other agency companies that are no longer companies because they couldn't for one reason or another keep running their agencies.

The end game for Cordiant played itself out rather quickly, as, in retrospect, it probably was fated to, despite the dismay from some advertising pundits (read: yours truly) that the haste to rush Cordiant into the arms of a bigger, better-run, richer rival was premature. Given the debts under which Cordiant strained, the over-supply of other agency resources available and the cut-throat competition now pervading the industry, what choice did Cordiant have but to sell, and to sell as swiftly as UBS, its investment adviser, could line up a suitable suitor?

That said suitor would be WPP is also not exactly a shock as at the end of an episode of The Twilight Zone. (Still, it might be fun to see Sir Martin Sorrell suited up like Rod Serling, lit cigarette in hand, intoning "Submitted for your approval ...") Sir Martin had made clear his ardour for additional acquisitions, even as WPP toiled to put its house in order at Young & Rubicam more than two years after that takeover.

That interest even remained intense in the face of Sir Martin's repeated cautionary comments that the advertising business wouldn't really begin recovering till 2004. (Last week, he amended that to advise against expecting a really spectacular comeback until 2008. Yes, 2008. Talk about Serlingesque surprises.)

And, for all the breathless coverage of the bitter battle between WPP and the Publicis Groupe and their duelling offers for Cordiant, was there any doubt that WPP eventually would emerge victorious? Sir Martin fought off Maurice Levy, the chairman of Publicis, the same way he bested his French competitor for Y&R in 2000. Remember too that Publicis is still busy rearranging the pieces of the former D'Arcy network that it dismembered last year and most likely too busy to take on a vivisection of Cordiant's holdings at the same time.

If Levy was not resolute enough to keep playing Sir Martin's game of "Can you top this?", he certainly was clever enough to make some deftly disparaging remarks after WPP's bid was accepted by the Cordiant board, murmuring that he didn't want to indulge in an orgy of overbidding.

Just how do you say "Yeah, right" in French?

Besides, on paper at least, the amalgamation of Cordiant and WPP makes eminent sense. Not only do they share some large clients, such as British American Tobacco and Pfizer, but both companies signalled a preference for a WPP deal over one with Publicis. (BAT was worried about working with the agency company that owns Leo Burnett, the creator of the Marlboro Man for its longtime rival Philip Morris.)

Toss in the consolation prize for Publicis of the 25 per cent of the ZenithOptimedia Group it didn't already own, and the symmetry of Sir Martin's reunion with parts of the old Saatchi & Saatchi empire for which he once worked, and even Levy might declare "d'accord" to the Cordiant accord.

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