WPP may have lost interest but Aegis is still bait for Bollore

Last Friday, consecutive e-mails arrived in my inbox, both relating to the fortunes of Aegis.

First, News International, after a pitch process more demanding than the worst Bushtucker Trial on I'm A Celebrity ..., moved its £25 million media account out of Carat and into MindShare. Then, a few minutes later, Aegis' chief executive, Robert Lerwill, issued his response to a decision by WPP and the private equity group Hellman & Friedman not to pursue an offer for Aegis.

The two events say much about the potential fragility of Aegis' position.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding its parent group's fortunes, Carat has mounted a concerted UK business effort that has seen it move to the top of the new-business league (wins include COI TV buying and Abbey).

Yet the loss of News International is a rare new-business blow to the agency and a reminder that competition has never been tougher in the media agency sector.

WPP and Hellman & Friedman's decision, coinciding with a Takeover Panel deadline to put up or shut up, had been predicted by many, but arguably prolongs the uncertainty over Aegis' future. Lerwill was bullish, arguing that Aegis' strategy is "clear and successful". "We continue to develop our leading media and research businesses, investing in profitable and high potential markets and services," he said. And, as if to prove the point, Aegis that morning spent £4 million on the Turkey-based research company Plus REMARK.

But while the likes of Publicis and WPP seem to have lost interest in Aegis, Vincent Bollore has not. As news came out last Friday that WPP and Hellman & Friedman had made an "indicative" offer materially below 140p and deemed "not credible" by Lerwill and his board, Bollore, the chairman of Havas, yet again upped his stake in Aegis, this time to slightly more than 25 per cent.

Bollore, who bought the shares through his investment vehicle Financiere du Loch, has been snapping up equity in Aegis since August and the latest activity has led both media and analysts to predict that he'll attempt to tie up Aegis and Havas to take on the might of larger groups.

Such a move cannot be ruled out and there was even speculation that Bollore was considering becoming part of the WPP/Hellman & Friedman team. However, he could now seek other partners or go it alone, increasing his stake in Aegis (he is now its largest shareholder) up to the 29.9 per cent limit before a bid must be made to take control of the company.

Aegis' strategy might well be clear but Bollore's continued presence behind the scenes could begin to prove uncomfortable for Lerwill, especially given his machinations when gaining control of Havas. The French raider just doesn't look like he's going away.