Publicis Groupe could have to sacrifice its SFR telecoms business in a reconfiguration after the shock departure of three senior executives.
Frederic Raillard and Farid Mokart, the founders of Marcel, the Publicis-owned creative hotshop, have resigned, together with the chairman of Publicis Conseil, Christophe Lambert, to launch a start-up.
The new agency, to be called Fred/Farid/Lambert, is being backed by Vincent Bollore, the Havas chairman.
Insiders believe a furious Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chairman, will most likely decide to fold Marcel, which was set up just 17 months ago. Its multimillion- pound France Telecom business would be moved into the Publicis agency in Paris.
"Fred and Farid 'were' Marcel," a Publicis manager said. "It was built around them."
Such a move would come at a heavy price, with Publicis Conseil being forced to pull out of a repitch against four other agencies for SFR, which is France's second-largest telecoms operator.
"Nothing has been decided," a Publicis source said.
Levy, who has not made a comment on the defections, is said to be outraged by what has happened. "This is humiliation beyond belief for him," a senior Publicis manager said.
In a curt message to staff this week, Levy said: "I'm not going to waste much time on this surprising decision. It's business as usual."
The announcement of the start-up came just four days after Lambert and Bollore met for the first time over lunch, having been brought together by an intermediary.
"He said he wanted to build his own agency," Bollore said. "Fred and Farid are so talented that it was too good an opportunity to pass up."
Bollore's advisors worked with the trio in order to reach an agreement, which Bollore signed on Monday.
Lambert resigned later that day, telling Levy he was going into business with Raillard and Mokart. It is unclear whether or not Lambert's decision is linked to last week's leadership changes at Publicis, which see Olivier Fleurot, the former Financial Times chief executive, installed as the executive chairman, and Richard Pinder, Leo Burnett's European boss, as the chief operating officer.
However, Publicis sources say Publicis Conseil's lacklustre new-business record over the past two years had already ruled Lambert out of contention for one of the top jobs.
Levy has told associates that he is deeply unhappy that the story of the departures should have been leaked to French newspapers before clients and affected staff had been told.
"Raillard and Mokart seem to have done everything you don't want to do if you wanted to leave Publicis without rancour," a source close to Levy commented.
Bollore said the new agency would be working independently, but would still be able to take advantage of Havas' international presence.
Bollore said that he had not spoken to Levy about the breakaway, but added: "I hope we can still have a good relationship with Publicis."
Comment, page 48.
March 2001: Raillard and Mokart join Bartle Bogle Hegarty from CLM/BBDO in Paris. Fred and Farid began their careers on the account side at Euro RSCG. They had spells at TBWA, BDDP, Publicis and Leo Burnett.
September 2002: Quit BBH for Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco.
May 2005: Lured back to France by Publicis Groupe to launch Marcel.
October 2006: Quit Marcel to join Christophe Lambert in start- up backed by Vincent Bollore.