You might as well try making sense of the shenanigans in North Korea’s upper echelons as the internal politics at Havas Worldwide, which resulted in the resignation of David Jones as the chief executive last week.
Is Jones really hellbent on leading a Silicon Valley-based tech start-up – as he would have everybody believe – or had he concluded that the power plays within the world’s sixth-largest communications group meant that, after 15 years, there was no prospect of further advancing his vaulting ambition? Had he – as some within Havas suggest – become distracted by his own relentless self-promotion?
As with North Korea, it depends on who you talk to. What’s clear is that, at the end of the day, blood has proven thicker than water.
Vincent Bolloré (pictured below), Havas’ main shareholder, may have regarded Jones almost as an adopted son. But he also has a real one, Yannick, and it is he who steps up from managing director to take over command from Jones. It’s a succession move that one Havas insider describes as "Murdochian".
"What happened was predictable," the boss of another major marcoms group remarks. "Working directly for Vincent was fine for Jones’ ego. But that was never going to be the case with his son."
It’s certainly true that the management reshuffle will only increase the speculation surrounding Havas’ future. "This isn’t going to play out the way Havas thinks it will," an industry source predicts. "Clients will not be happy that Jones is leaving."
‘Spoilt and arrogant’
Undoubtedly, he is leaving behind a far-from-settled management front line. Questions persist about whether Yannick, aged just 33, and having previously run the Groupe Bolloré media operations, is in above his head.
"He’s a nice guy but he’s spoilt and arrogant and he doesn’t understand the business," a source close to Havas comments. "But Havas is now his train set and Jones was in his way."
Similar doubts persist about Andrew Benett, currently a co-president of the Havas Worldwide agency group, who becomes the chief executive of the agency network.
He and Jones have had a combative relationship – the pair were said to have been "at war" over account losses and the network’s tepid new-business performance. What’s more, there has been persistent speculation that Benett might abandon ship should the sea get too choppy.
"Benett isn’t a natural leader and lacks creative judgment," an insider claims. "If Havas isn’t successful in the next few months, there’s a high chance that he’ll leave."
For his part, Jones plays down reports of a frosty relationship with Yannick. "There’s never been a problem between us," he insists. "Vincent told me a couple of years ago what was going to happen and I would have bailed out then if I’d had a concern. If I’d wanted to stay at Havas, I could have done."
Jones, who will act as an advisor to Yannick for the next year, believes Havas possesses the prowess to come through. He singles out Kate Robertson, the global co-president and one of his staunchest allies, as "an amazing talent" and insists: "Havas has strength in depth."
Nevertheless, it is questionable whether Havas can bounce back from losses over recent years that have included ExxonMobil, Jaguar (pictured) and Heineken, and last month’s decision by its last big client, Reckitt Benckiser (with which Jones enjoyed a particularly close relationship), to call a review on three of its largest brands.
"A lot of uncertainty will return," an internal source predicts. "Pitching for global accounts is going to be a problem."
The obvious question arising from all of this is whether Vincent will reconsider his pledge not to sell his controlling stake in Havas. This, though, may not be an easy option, with Dentsu probably the only major player with enough money, and the need, to acquire Havas and bolster its European presence.
Havas merger ‘probable’
Some wonder whether Bolloré might decide on a spectacular coup de théâtre by folding Havas into Vivendi, the French media giant that’s four times Havas’ size. Bolloré owns 5 per cent of Vivendi’s stock and is due to become its chairman this year.
"Bolloré is completely focused on Vivendi," a source close to him says. "He used to be very involved with Havas. Now he isn’t. Merging Havas with Vivendi is entirely possible, even probable."
Richard Pinder, the former Publicis chief operating officer, says: "Merging Havas with Vivendi would create a new communications model and, if Bolloré thought there was a real chance it would work, he would take it. The French are brilliant at bold but pragmatic strategic strikes."
The more immediate problem, however, is how to manage a change that Havas senior executives feel has been foisted on them. "Havas doesn’t understand corporate governance," an industry source says.
"If you want to make your son chairman, you put it to the board, which votes on it. Vincent just made the announcement. There was no discussion."
Another concern is the people Yannick is likely to have around him. This worry stems from the time Vincent, dismayed by the level of bonuses being paid under the previous regime of Alain de Pouzilhac, parted company with the then chief financial officer, Jean-Marie Le Nail.
"It was then that the Bolloré people took over and that’s turning out to be a problem," an onlooker suggests. "They come from a group that’s industrial by nature and they move in a different way. They’re also Vincent’s eyes and ears."
Jones, who is said to have been "knocked off his feet" by the inducements offered by Vincent to get him to stay, claims to have been bitten too seriously by the entrepreneurial bug to change his mind.
Indeed, Vincent seems to have accepted a fait accompli. "I would have liked him to remain with Havas or Groupe Bolloré," he confesses. "But, as an entrepreneur myself, I understand David’s ambitions."
However, Vincent’s declared intention to remain "his close business friend" has led to speculation that their link is far from broken and that he hasn’t lost hope of eventually luring Jones back into an enlarged Vivendi.
No details have yet emerged about Jones’ venture. All that is known is that it will be a social media platform that will operate in line with his views on corporate social responsibility by giving a significant amount of its profits to NGOs and charities.
"I really believe that the most successful businesses will be those that give something back," he says. "I couldn’t do that while remaining at Havas."