French aristocrat braves the streetfighter of advertising

Alain de Pouzilhac started out as a lowly adman. Now the Havas boss is battling for surpremacy with WPP
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The Independent Online

lain de Pouzilhac has achieved the Frenchman's dream. As a successful businessman, he has earned enough money to buy his very own vineyard. The seven hectares, he says, provide him with 10,000 bottles of wine a year.

The grandness of his surroundings is not new to him as Baron Alain du Plessis de Pouzilhac, to give the Havas boss his full name, has aristocratic roots. His name is derived from a village in the South of France where his family once owned a castle.

But now the 56-year-old advertising grandee is having to get his hands dirty. He is competing against the formidable Sir Martin Sorrell, the head of advertising giant WPP, for control of the London-listed media group Tempus. The prize is Tempus's media buying division, CIA, which takes out advertising space in newspapers and magazines and airtime on radio and TV. Sir Martin has fought with several companies in such situations and usually come out as the winner – often inflicting casualties along the way.

So when he trumped Havas with a £437m bid for Tempus, de Pouzilhac could have been forgiven if he'd reached for the bottle. After all, Sir Martin already owns 22 per cent of Tempus and has a lot more firepower.

But if de Pouzilhac is worried, he's not showing it. His office in Paris is uncluttered and he welcomes visitors with gusto. He is soon chatting away to strangers like they're long-lost friends. It's unusual behaviour but he's had an unorthodox life.

In France, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) is the training ground for nearly all the great and good. Ex-pupils include Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Messier, who heads Vivendi Universal and is de Pouzilhac's former boss. But de Pouzilhac himself never made it to ENA. Instead he started at the bottom in advertising firm Publicis and worked his way up to the top of Havas Advertising. He then grew it from a tiddler in 1989 to its current status in the premier league of media firms through a series of deals.

Maybe because of the meritocratic start to his career, he seems slightly disapproving of the type of people who go to ENA.

De Pouzilhac breaks the mould of the French stereotype with his views on other nationalities. In the late 1980s he decided that Havas's concentration on France was an antiquated way of doing business, and that international expansion should be the goal.

At the time 70 per cent of the business was in France. Now, after deals that have brought ad agencies WCRS and Snyder, PR firm Hudson Sandler and direct marketing network Brann into the fold France represents just 15 per cent. Revenues have quadrupled to achieve net revenues last year of 5.7bn euros (£3.6bn). But at first this wasn't a strategy that his employees appreciated.

"I said, we have to be global, and it was a shock to some of the staff." It was a task to convince them that France was no longer in the era of Charles de Gaulle, when the country thought it ruled the world.

He, on the other hand, says he embraces travelling and absorbing new cultures. "I love to meet different people, with different educations and habits. You improve your vision and open your mind."

Although he's come a long way, the City thinks Havas has to expand much more – and quickly. Last year it was ranked as the eighth-largest media buying company in terms of market share, but that is not enough. This is thought to be the reason for acquiring Tempus: it will propel the company further up the league.

Contracts with large multinationals like Shell – which can be worth as much as $1bn (£693m) - are the Holy Grail in investors' eyes. And they think that the only way you can win them is to be one of the really big boys.

This should be putting pressure on de Pouzilhac to do the deal with Tempus. But while he seems enthusiastic about the deal, he disagrees with the view that bigger is better. "A lot of people see scale as the most important thing. But I see specialisation as the way forward. We try to develop specialisations area by area. What he means is that his individual divisions – the creatives in advertising, the media buyers, planning teams and marketing consultants – should be managed individually and not merged to cut costs.

But pressure from potential investors to do the deal is not the only problem facing de Pouzilhac. Many are putting forward a theory that Sir Martin's counter-bid has only been launched to force Havas to increase its price, so giving him more money for his own stake in Tempus. Others say WPP will win because it has more cash.

Malicious gossip has also started doing the rounds, saying that Tempus's clients clash with those at Havas and that Tempus would lose lucrative contracts with large companies like Vodafone.

But de Pouzilhac shrugs it off, punctuating his conversation with laughter. "When you play a game you try to win, but sometimes you lose. If we do, it will be a pity because I think it is a huge opportunity for both companies. If we don't succeed, we will make another plan."

He is not keen to give any details of his plan B, or even of his plans for Tempus. But one thing he won't do, he says, is launch a hostile bid – making him very different to Sir Martin.

He says you have to respect the staff in the company you are bidding for and seek agreement with the management. "I'm not an angel but the most important thing is to respect the people."

So if the Tempus board backs the WPP bid, de Pouzilhac says he will withdraw. The board had previously recommended Havas's offer but had to become neutral after WPP's bid. However, it is now making its mind up over who it should recommend – so a charm offensive is being waged by both sides.

In this sense, de Pouzilhac may have the upper hand, as Tempus's chairman, Chris Ingram, is thought not to have Sir Martin on his list of favourite people. Havas also has the support of 39 managers in Tempus who together own about a quarter of the shares.

De Pouzilhac must have a lot of Gallic charm to achieve such cordial relations, even if WPP has spoilt the party. He comes across as laid-back and amiable, but he's causing some tension at the moment. This is because the City is on tenterhooks to know his next move – will he raise his bid above WPP's offer? Will he give in to Sir Martin? Could he change his mind and bid for a different media buyer?

He's too shrewd to let on what he wants to do and says he's going to wait before he reveals his hand. He claims he's predicted Sir Martin's every move – even down to the value of WPP's bid, at 555p per share – and won't help his adversary to do the same to him.

If he wins, he'll surprise many people as Sir Martin has many years' training in company warfare. They've both been on holiday this weekend, but when they return, the battle will commence. And perhaps de Pouzilhac's charming veneer will be peeled back to reveal a tough fighting machine.

Fact File

Alain de Pouzilhac: career history

* 1968: assistant account executive at advertising group Publicis.

* 1967: account supervisor at advertising agency DDB.

* 1976: chief operating officer of Havas Conseil.

* 1982: chief executive officer of Havas Conseil.

* 1987: appointed to the board of Eurocom Advertising.

* 1989: chairman and chief executive of Eurocom Advertising (the precursor to Havas Advertising).

Havas Advertising: history

The name Havas has a long history in France. It comes from the company's founder, Charles Havas, who set up the first wire service in 1835, later to become Agence France Presse.

By 1968 the company had grown to encompass different aspects of the media. Havas Advertising started in that year, as an ad agency called Havas Conseil. This was partially floated on the Paris Bourse in 1982.

It gradually grew in strength. In 1990, under the name Eurocom Advertising, it merged with Roux Seguela Cayzac Goudard, a French advertising company.

De Pouzilhac turned this combination into Havas Advertising in 1996 through a big restructuring. By this time the parent company, Havas, had become a large multimedia and travel company.

Then Havas was bought by Compagnie Générale des Eaux in 1998, as the first step in the utility firm's transformation into media giant Vivendi Universal. Vivendi started selling off its portion of Havas Advertising in 1999.

Havas Advertising finally became independent in June this year, when Vivendi sold off the final 10 per cent stake.