PERSPECTIVE: Auditing scandal or caution: the story of an IPG share plunge

In the US at the moment, there are some offences so grave that the perpetrators could spend more time in prison than if they had murdered their granny in cold blood. Terrorism? Treason? Communism? Inappropriate use of a cigar in the Oval Office? Child abuse? No. Failure by a chief executive or chief financial officer of a Fortune 1000 company to comply with the Securities and Exchange Commission's demands to swear their accounts are not fraudulent? That's the one.

With corporate America reeling from the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, and the SEC's deadline of 14 August just days away, the pressure is on US directors to personally certify their companies' integrity. More than 700 will therefore have to file an oath within 45 days of their year end - 14 August for the vast majority.

So when Interpublic made a surprise announcement on Monday that it was delaying its second-quarter earnings report, investors sent its chief executive, John Dooner, a clear signal of no confidence. IPG's share price collapsed 24 per cent on Monday and on Tuesday fell another 11 per cent, trading at $13.40 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Omnicom, meanwhile, stuck to its plans to report its second-quarter earnings on time and issued some surprising figures yesterday - 10 per cent revenue gain and, better still, 1.5 per cent organic growth.)

One explanation, popular outside IPG for obvious reasons, is that IPG's audit committee has picked up a whiff of accounting impropriety and panicked.

This theory fingers Dooner as a problem executive rather than an executive with a problem. Another explanation is that the audit committee is simply being super cautious over the accounting ramifications of IPG's reorganisation after its $1.68 billion purchase of True North Communications.

What lends the latter theory credence is the continued faith in Dooner by the top management in his agency networks.

These executives, while dismayed to see the value of their stock options evaporate, report that Dooner has gained and retained their respect since his appointment in January 2001. They admire the greater financial rigor he has fostered, and they ruefully acknowledge that he picked a really bad time to become chief executive. Dotcom spending has gone into reverse and no equivalent new generator of advertising spending has developed, the world economy has stalled - and in the middle of all that he tried to pull off the acquisition of True North.

Media industry investors may deplore the mass insecurity of the current bear market, but agency managers know that clients have their own worries.

Even with IPG blamed for not recording its results, and Omnicom still recovering from its recent accounting woes, clients are likely to be much more concerned with their own back yard.

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