WPP's Sorrell Signals Interest In Aegis Unit, Implies It's In Play

WPP Group is still keen on acquiring part of the Aegis Group. The London-based parent of MediaCom, Mediaedge:cia and MindShare is interested in acquiring Aegis' marketing and media research division Synovate, Martin Sorrell, chairman-CEO of WPP Group told Reuters Wednesday in an interview following a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Sorrell did not disclose whether he has held any active talks with Aegis about Synovate since WPP and U.S. private equity firm Hellman & Friedman failed to make a successful bid to acquire all of Aegis late last year. Under European law, the syndicate is blocked from bidding for Aegis again until May. French financier Vincent Bollore, meanwhile, has been inching up his control of Aegis, as well as rival Paris-based holding company Havas, though he continues to indicate no plans to consolidate or align the two advertising and marketing services companies.

But Sorrell's disclosure of continued interest in Synovate is interesting for several reasons. One is that it suggests that Aegis -- or at least parts of it -- are still in play. The other is what it says about how WPP sees itself strategically positioned for the future.

"We would have to have a very close look at Synovate. The information we were given I do not think was accurate. I think it was probably very optimistic," Sorrell said in the Reuters interview, implying that the door was still open for acquiring Aegis' research business.

"I don't think Aegis will remain independent," he added, even though Bollore, who is also chairman of Havas, and now controls more than 25 percent of Aegis, has said he would like to see Aegis remain independent.

The timing of Sorrell's comments is also interesting, because it indicates he is thinking about growing WPP's research portfolio at a time when other major research assets are known to be in play, and when WPP is pushing in new strategic directions.

The most notable play is the assets of Dutch research and publishing conglomerate VNU, the parent of Nielsen Media Research, ACNielsen and trade publications like Adweek, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. WPP's AGB division, operated a TV ratings joint venture with Nielsen outside the U.S., and some observers believe Sorrell might also make a bid to buy out Nielsen's interests in Europe and possibly even in the U.S. if VNU is acquired and broken up. A group of private equity firms currently is bidding to acquire VNU, and a breakup is expected soon. Other interested parties are believed to include radio ratings giant Arbitron, which also has potential joint ventures with Nielsen, as well as TV ratings upstart erinMedia, which has been suing Nielsen and has expressed an interest in acquiring it.

However, it also is possible that WPP envisions a move in another research direction: marketing, not media. Synovate, which operates businesses like marketing mix specialist MMA in the U.S., is known more for its marketing research expertise than for media research.

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