CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - CHRIS COUGHLIN. Coughlin has a tough task to impose financial order on IPG, John Tylee reports

Other than having your genitals stapled to the floor, Jackass-style, is there any more gruesome an ordeal than holding the purse strings at the strife-torn Interpublic?

Burdened by a $3.3 billion debt, under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for overstating its results by $180 million, its former top managers are now indicted in a class action accusing IPG of defrauding investors.

It's all proved too much of a trial for IPG's chief financial officer, Sean Orr, whose impending departure from the world's second-largest communications group was announced last week.

Can his successor, Chris Coughlin, demonstrate to shareholders that IPG is getting a grip on a group whose operating subsidiaries employ more than 49,000 people in 130 countries and serve more than 4,000 clients?

Orr's resignation after four years was no surprise. Whether he could or should have questioned some of the massively expensive deals that fuelled IPG's diversification programme is debatable. What's clear is that dealing with the fall-out has been crushing.

David Bell, the chief executive of IPG, sensitive to the inevitable scuttlebutt that would follow the news of Orr's exit, decided to get his retaliation in first.

In a memo to IPG staff last Wednesday, he suggested that the announcement "may well spark baseless rumours and speculation by people claiming to be 'in the know' here at IPG. They're not."

Orr's decision was "just that -his decision. It does not reflect any developments in our financial situation. Don't expect revelations or major headlines related to today's news in the weeks to come."

Commentators suggest that Bell doesn't want Orr cast as a whipping boy in advance of IPG's six-monthly figures, due within the next fortnight.

Although bad, they are more likely to suggest a lingering failure to make the necessary margins than highlight any further accounting discrepancies.

"Orr did all the right things but was beaten up by the experience," one senior executive comments. "How many chief financial officers of his experience have had to deal with that kind of shit?"

Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, says: "It's conceivable that Orr has decided he's not going to do his career much good if he continues to preside over such a messy state of affairs."

Coughlin's big advantage is that he arrives free from any historical baggage. A former Sterling Drug and Nabisco senior executive, he joined IPG as the chief operating officer less than three months ago from the drug company Pharmacia where, as the chief financial officer, he was a key member of the team that acquired Monsanto.

Importantly, given IPG's plight, his five-year stint at Pharmacia showed him to be highly proactive and committed to transparency. "He didn't just sit in a corner and say 'here's what you need to do'," a colleague from the time says.

"His job involved tracking what money was coming in, what money was being spent on and doing that across companies and countries," a former associate recalls.

IPG onlookers see Bell and Coughlin as natural allies. "Bell wouldn't have hired him if he didn't think they could work well together," an analyst says. Certainly they will be more comfortable bedfellows than Orr and John Dooner, Bell's predecessor, who returned to running the McCann-Erickson network earlier this year.

"Orr was a studious, highly intelligent and almost academic CFO," an IPG source says. "Dooner was more about getting some action."

Coughlin's immediate task is to demonstrate to investors that IPG is tightening up its financial controls while providing reassurance to staff and clients that it can successfully manage itself.

The key question is whether he can impose financial discipline on such a sprawling and diverse operation. Abe Jones, a former president and chief executive of FCB, now a partner in the New York mergers and acquisition specialist AdMedia, is confident that it can be done.

"Coughlin provides a combination of operational and financial experience," he says. "His credentials are excellent."