Claire Beale: Why the old Publicis/IPG rumours refuse to die
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: Why the old Publicis/IPG rumours refuse to die

There's a childish delight to be had from the frequent sniping between WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell and Publicis Groupe's Maurice Levy.

The latest squabble has been over rumours that Publicis is stalking Interpublic Group. Earlier this month, the Financial Times published a blog reckoning that Publicis was preparing an offer for IPG that would value the US holding company at more than $6 billion. The FT is generally more right than not about these sorts of things. And IPG's stock surged by more than 13 per cent on the speculation. It took a couple of days before Publicis emerged to deny any discussions had taken place with IPG, insisting that no bank had been commissioned to push for a deal. The FT duly published a retraction.

Cue Sorrell, wading in to accuse Publicis of being less than open and honest: "Are they saying they've never had a conversation with IPG? We know that to be untrue." Predictably, Levy couldn't let that pass. "As very often, what Martin says is rubbish," he told Campaign.

And Sorrell came again: "Maurice's typically articulate response fails to answer the implied question. Has he had talks with Roth and/or IPG or not?"

But all this is just an entertaining sideshow. Has Publicis got IPG in its sights? Interpublicis is an old, old rumour. Not that it won't prove true some day, soon even. We're certainly in mating season. From Dentsu/Aegis, to Publicis/Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and WPP/AKQA, growth-by-acquisition is feverish. Stocks have been depressed through the recession and, optimistically, this buying frenzy is a sign the global economy might pick up pretty soon and deals are being done before stock prices start to rise.

And Levy, due for retirement, erm, soonish, could be looking for one last wow to secure his legacy. A combined Publicis/IPG would be the world's second-largest marketing services company behind WPP.

On the other hand, Publicis doesn't need a deal of IPG proportions. Its most recent international purchases have been predominantly digital, and the US is no longer its weak link; 50 per cent of its revenues now come from America. What's more, buying IPG would surely require a sizeable chunk of equity funding, which sits uncomfortably with Publicis' financial conservatism.

Yet there's a growing sense that IPG needs a transformational deal, whether that be sale or, less likely, acquisition. The group has seemed less sure of its paternal reason for being, and some of its biggest network assets, from McCann World Group to DraftFCB and the Mediabrands operations, are not as strong as they once were. Then there are questions about how much longer IPG's chief, Michael Roth, will stick around.

All we know for sure is we haven't heard the last in the Sorrell/Levy war of words and we haven't heard the last of a Publicis/IPG alliance.