In many ways, it was appropriate that WPP Group finally decided to
go ahead with its pricey acquisition of Tempus Group around the time
that Americans were voting on Election Day. The reason? The result of
the on-again, off-again, on-again takeover brings to mind the final
scene of one of our best movies about politics, The Candidate.
That 1972 film stars Robert Redford, in his impossibly blond days, as
Bill McKay, an unlikely hopeful for a US Senate seat from California,
who wins the election against an intrenched incumbent after myriad
twists and turns to the campaign. In the last scene, he asks his
campaign manager: "What do we do now?"
That's the $637 million question that Madison Avenue believes is
being asked by Sir Martin Sorrell, the WPP group chief executive, after
he was told by British regulators that their opposition to his efforts
to get out of the deal was, as one reporter commented,
On this side of the Atlantic, the brouhaha over Sir Martin's efforts to
back away from his initial manoeuvres to trump Havas Advertising's
friendly bid was considered little more than, er, um, a Tempus in a
teapot. Tempus fugit? More like Tempus fuhgeddaboudit.
Nothing, not even a three-way takeover battle that might end with the
talent behind the desks stalking out the door, was going to distract
Americans from their latest preoccupation: competing to see who can make
the most dire forecasts about how much faster the ad economy is falling
apart after 11 September than before. So far, even the most pessimistic
predictions call for a turnaround in 2003. But stick around, someone is
sure to come forward soon with projections of three consecutive years of
declining ad spending instead of two.
As a result, Sir Martin's problem that he must proceed with the Tempus
bid, despite trying to clamber out through an escape hatch known as the
material adverse charge clause, is not being met with sympathy here,
much less tea. Most agency executives can't imagine anyone has $7
to spend these days on acquisitions, never mind $637 million.
And even with the hefty premium WPP is being forced to cough up, it's
clear to anyone still paying attention - all 43 of us - that the deal is
still a shrewdly strategic acquisition.
There is even some speculation that WPP's kicking and screaming over
having to complete the takeover was not unlike the loud fuss made by a
character named Brer Rabbit, in a famous US folktale in the "Uncle
Remus" series. The story goes that when Brer Rabbit was finally caught
by his arch-enemy, Brer Fox, he begged Brer Fox not to throw him into
the briar patch. Anything but that briar patch!
Needless to say, Brer Fox tosses the rabbit into the briar patch, then
waits to see the dire fate sure to befall him. Instead, Brer Rabbit is
one beaming bunny. Scampering off, he proclaims he was "bred and born in
the briar patch". The fox was outfoxed.
Long after the contretemps over Tempus is forgotten, Sir Martin will be
remembered as one foxy dealmaker, particularly as combining the
international operations of CIA with the domestic operations of Young &
Rubicam's Media Edge will likely prove one plus one equals three, to
borrow some Election Day math from Chicago. But please, don't call the
merged agency CIA Media Edge. Even Redford would agree "CIA" sends the
wrong signal; after all, didn't he play a disillusioned spy three years
after The Candidate in Three Days of the Condor?