Publicis Eyes Aegis -- Again, WPP Explores VNU

The action is heating up once again on Madison Avenue's mergers and acquisitions front as two top holding company chiefs signal plans to acquire big targets. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy said he still has his eye on London-based Aegis Group, and a new offer could be made as soon as March. The disclosure follows statements last week by WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell that he was still interested in Aegis' marketing research operations, though he is blocked from making another bid for until late this year. Sorrell, however, reportedly is considering a bid for at least part of Dutch-based research giant VNU.

Sorrell has approached the group of private equity firms that have offered $8.8 billion to acquire VNU, and which are expected to break it up and sell off the pieces, Reuters reported Tuesday morning. The report did not say what VNU assets Sorrell is most interested in, but Nielsen Media Research is a good bet. WPP's AGB unit currently has a joint venture with Nielsen for TV ratings outside the U.S., and the British ad agency chief may hope to fold Nielsen's U.S. TV operations into that.

On the other hand, WPP has also been building its marketing research holdings, and signaled its desire to do more vis a vis its expression of interest in Aegis' Synovate unit, indicating that VNU's ACNielsen operations might also be a good fit.

Reuters reported that a WPP spokesman denied the company was in discussions with the buyout firms.