Perspective - Roth must adopt new values to hold IPGtogether

When you hire a new chief executive, your best hopes are that they will grow profits and increase shareholder value. Your worst hopes are the status quo.

In the case of Interpublic Group, the status quo was never an option. Yet when Michael Roth took over as the chief executive at the beginning of last year, the company was worth $5.6 billion; last week its value sank down to $3.4 billion.

It's a breakneck slump that even the most pessimistic IPG shareholder would have baulked at imagining. But within 18 months of Roth's arrival, the share price has plummeted to a low (the lowest price since 1991, in fact) that finally puts the group within the sights of potential acquisitors.

As achievements go, presiding over a 41 per cent slump in such a short time is pretty astounding. Particularly when you consider that Roth's strength in the chief executive role, we've always been told, is his business acumen. He is no adman, obsessed purely with the mechanics of communications. Roth is a numbers man, a "thug", Donny Deutsch says, someone who takes no prisoners in his drive to put IPG on a sound financial and operational footing.

Perhaps Roth's lack of advertising experience has hastened the decline in value; General Motors, Unilever and Bank of America are among the blue-chip clients to pull business out of IPG last year.

A more advertising-attuned chief executive might have had more success in wooing and reassuring some of the group's biggest and most lucrative advertisers. Roth himself admitted that a tide of client defections have taken their toll on IPG's financial performance and predicted that this year would be "challenging".

But the truth is that Roth has actually done the hygiene part of his job pretty well. Too well, perhaps. With the share price slide now putting IPG well within the sights of interested investors, Roth's tidying up of a business that was a quagmire of murky practices and financial mismanagement has actually polished the old IPG turd.

So just how attractive is IPG or its individual assets to potential bidders? American analysts are convinced that there are plenty of interested private equity companies (Hellman & Friedman the most prominent among them) and that the communications industry remains an attractive investment opportunity.

Most, though, believe that IPG's real value lies in selling on its individual assets. Extracting value from, say, Lowe with its unwieldy network (despite the recent decision to close 47 offices) would be one challenge. And the Draft/FCB merger still has to be worked through before its real value as a standalone entity can be calculated. McCann Worldgroup, undoubtedly, remains a jewel.

Whatever the final outcome, it's clear that IPG's challenge will be holding on to clients and talent as long as the question-marks continue to hang over its future. As the chief executive, Roth now needs to prove that he is a shrewd businessman and one who really understands the communications business in which he operates. Clients and staff are the assets that will secure IPG's future and Roth must now get closer to both if he's to hold the company together.

In the past fortnight alone, four media chief executives have told me that their dream is to run a creative agency. How things change. Our feature on page 24 illustrates how keen media people were to break free from the stifling creative environment a few decades ago.

Now they have proved that they can run incredibly tight businesses, develop a commodity into a sophisticated, strategic sell, and understand the communications future. It's not surprising that they would now relish the chance to do a similar turnaround in the creative agency arena. Would any creative agency be bold enough to tap into this senior media talent? Watch this space.

claire.beale@haynet.com.