Media Perspective: Can Napier reverse Aegis' fortunes at home and abroad?

Shares in Aegis leapt by 20 per cent last Thursday on news of the departure of its chief executive, Robert Lerwill, prompting one Aegis shareholder to comment over drinks: "It's the best day's work he's done for two years."

Aegis shares had jumped on the back of speculation that Lerwill's departure, and the installation of the Aegis chairman, John Napier, as the interim chief executive, would open the door for greater influence from the Havas chairman, Vincent Bollore, the owner of a 29.9 per cent stake in Aegis, and then to a takeover approach. Bollore, who has been rebuffed five times, has already been reported as saying that he is more confident of securing boardroom representation at Aegis following Lerwill's departure.

All this may have enhanced the chances of a Bollore bid to take control of Aegis but Aegis insiders indicate that the reasons for Lerwill's departure were not all related to his constant willingness to oppose Bollore. Last week's events saw Napier take the helm after rumours of boardroom clashes with Lerwill. One source suggests that Napier, who took the chairman role in July, and is apparently inclined to be far more hands-on than his predecessor Colin Sharman, was unhappy with the performance of the Aegis share price (even in a difficult climate) and with Lerwill's attempts to turn the situation around.

In particular, some sources suggest Lerwill was made to carry the can not only for the warnings of "slowing demand" from clients, but also for the appointment of Mainardo de Nardis as the chief executive of Aegis Media. And for a perceived period of lost momentum while Aegis waited for him to join on gardening leave before replacing him with Jerry Buhlmann less than two years later. Aegis Media's continued poor performance in the US and embarrassing cock-ups at Carat US that led to details of job losses and a restructuring leaking out, were also said to have counted against Lerwill.

Set against that, Lerwill has left a well-regarded research-based business in Synovate, which was strengthened through acquisition and may still attract interest from potential suitors. He should also take some of the credit for providing the investment required to turn its Isobar unit into a formidable digital media operation. In addition, despite the recent loss of Renault and the plight of its General Motors client, Carat in Europe remains a strong operator.

Some Aegis sources predict that Napier, who acted in time to take control of next year's budgets and numbers, is keen to occupy the chief executive job full-time and that it is unlikely to look externally for a replacement for Lerwill. With Bollore again pushing for greater influence at Aegis and question marks hanging over its long-term independence, this seems a likely outcome.

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