Havas launched a fightback on Thursday as Alain de Pouzilhac, chairman and chief executive of the French advertising group, took a swipe at Sir Martin Sorrell, head of UK rival WPP.
“I must recognise and salute an excellent quality in Sir Martin Sorrell of managing speculation and, in effect, manipulating people, of which he is a master,” Mr de Pouzilhac said.
“We have much to learn from him in this respect.”
The back-handed compliment from Mr de Pouzilhac came as he tried to convince investors Havas was recovering and could thrive on its own only days after losing a bid battle with WPP for US rival Grey Global. The failure fuelled speculation Havas had turned from predator to prey.
The Havas boss saw Grey as one of the last chances to gain the critical size needed to compete with the big four ad groups WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic of the US, and Publicis of France. He made the bid over the opposition of Havas's largest shareholder and its house bank.
The bad blood between Mr de Pouzilhac and Sir Martin dates back at least to their bruising battle over Tempus, the UK media buyer eventually bought by WPP in 2001.
It could make a link-up between the two groups more difficult, as hostile bids in the advertising sector are rare.
The UK group declined to comment on Mr de Pouzilhac's statement. At a briefing on Monday to discuss WPP's $1.5bn acquisition of Grey, Sir Martin said he had twice approached Havas to buy a stake in Media Planning Group, its media buying unit, but had been rebuffed.
Sir Martin said he was “irritated” when Havas appeared to deny the approaches had been made.
Mr de Pouzilhac denied “ever seeing any offers on my desk” from WPP. He rejected claims Havas was “any more vulnerable to a takeover than it was before Grey”.
His tone became more accommodating for Vincent Bolloré, the corporate raider who has built up a stake of at least 10 per cent in Havas, becoming its biggest shareholder.
“The arrival of a new shareholder is welcome news, giving us an important anchor in the share capital.”
He said Mr Bolloré had requested two seats on Havas's board, which “appears totally legitimate”. Havas is considering splitting the board into supervisory and management boards or replacing existing directors to accommodate Mr Bolloré.
Havas announced a €400m ($488m) rights issue to help repay a €666m convertible bond maturing in January 2006.
It also reported first-half profits of €14m, against a loss of €58.2m, prompting Mr de Pouzilhac to argue his latest restructure was paying off. Its shares fell 3.8 per cent to €4.09 on Thursday.
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