Media Headliner: Rodes keeps Latin spirit alive at Havas Media

Alfonso Rodes Vila would prefer Havas Media to grow from the ground up, despite its recent acquisitions.

Looking resplendent in a blue, cuff-linked, monogrammed shirt, Alfonso Rodes Vila speaks good English in a fast but softly spoken fashion, which somehow accentuates the passion he has for his business.

We meet in a nondescript meeting room in MPG's Leicester Square HQ, a far cry from Rodes' office in his hometown of Barcelona, which is crowded with FC Barcelona pictures and memorabilia. The proud Catalan, 46, is also a fan of fine cuisine, and has been known to enjoy fresh truffles when in season, the smell permeating his office when colleagues come by to meet.

But there's no such luxury in evidence today as we explore the fortunes of Havas Media, the division of the French advertising group of which he is the chief executive. Also on the agenda is the form of his beloved football team as they gear up to face Manchester United in the Champions League, and an acceptance that the standard of English restaurants is on the rise as Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck is once again named a close runner-up to Spain's El Bulli in the pecking order of the world's best eateries.

Alfonso seems taller and slightly more thick-set than his impish-looking elder brother, Fernando, whose elevation to his role as the chief executive of Havas two years ago paved the way for Alfonso to take over its media interests. He has worked for Havas for 12 years, since his appointment in 1996 to a development role for the MPG network. Before this, he spent 15 years in banking.

His role in leading Havas Media ensures family continuity going back 30 years (in 1978, his father, Leopoldo, launched Media Planning as the first specialist media agency in Spain). However, it was the acquisition of MPG by Havas in 1999 that led to the expansion of the brand outside of its Latin heartland (in 1999 it was in nine markets; it's now in 101 markets) and the eventual formation of Havas Media in 2006 to house its diverse media interests.

Among the holding companies, Havas is undoubtedly weak in terms of media scale, but owns some formidable local operations, and in recent months has stirred into activity in the UK. In January it completed the £20 million acquisition of BLM Media to become part of its second-string Arena network, and last month followed the £12 million deal to buy Cake, the brand entertainment specialist.

Rodes constantly emphasises the entrepreneurial nature of the Havas Media business, which stems from an MPG aversion to growing through acquisition - he says that apart from its operations in Colombia and Germany, the business was grown from the ground up. This fits in with his brother's criticism of the previous Havas regime over its 90s "shopping spree" that saddled the company with losses. However, Rodes said it had to take a different tack in the UK: "Starting up Arena from scratch in the UK would have been almost impossible, so we looked to find the right business to buy."

He says Havas has no plans to make MPG and Arena BLM merge or trade together, and will pursue a strategy of two separate brands. In other areas, though, such as brand entertainment, it will work on integrating its business.

Looking at the bigger picture, Rodes cites the UK acquisitions as evidence that Havas is pursuing its own strategy regardless of the interest shown by its chairman, Vincent Bollore, in Aegis. As Havas shareholders, the Rodes family helped usher in Bollore as the chairman of the group two years ago. Rodes says: "Vincent Bollore brings us something very important - he gave us emotional support. He told us not to worry about the balance sheet, but to do what we had to do. He's from the same world as us, and it makes Havas a good entrepreneurial and fun place to work right now."

On a deal between Havas, which has just posted a 2.5 per cent increase in quarterly revenues, and Aegis, Rodes says: "It's an opportunity, but an opportunity that is not in our hands. It's in the hands of the chairman. My only worry is that together we are missing opportunities. Aegis is a competitor, but a nice competitor. It seems closer to us than anyone."

In the meantime, Havas Media is pursuing a strategy of growing through digital (now responsible for 20 per cent of its revenues) and by acquiring non-media buying businesses such as Cake. Rodes says he is pleased with the growth of MPG (like-for-like revenues were up 18 per cent last year) and says that the network's differentiation is its emphasis on local business (it has 1,000 clients globally and 70 per cent of its revenues are from local accounts).

While Rodes concedes that the MPG heritage of "family and Latin roots" still underpins the company, he argues that there are other core values that drive it: "We're entrepreneurial and very flexible, and, above all, strong and aggressive commercially."

But will this be enough to drive it forward against a tough economic backdrop? "2008 will be a good year for us, 2009 we will see, but I'm not so pessimistic. People have been talking too much like that, so there is this vicious circle of pessimism - I think we should change the message about how bad things are," Rodes says. "The economy is more solid now than it was years ago, so while the real estate issue is a big crisis, I don't see things so dramatically. Maybe growth will be smaller for a while, but there will still be growth."

Age: 46
Lives: Barcelona
Family: A wife and three children
Most treasured possession: Family and culture
Last book you read: Slow Food Nation - Why Our Food Should Be Good,
Clean and Fair, by Carlo Petrini, the Slow Food Movement's founder
Favourite journey in the world: A morning walking in the mountains with
family and friends, ending with a nice table for lunch.