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2nd Aegis Group Suitor May Be WPP

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NEW YORK WPP Group has declined to comment on reports that it has held talks with Aegis Group about making a bid for the company or that it is teaming with San Francisco-based investment house Hellman & Friedman to raise money for the acquisition.

Aegis confirmed on Tuesday that it has had discussions with more than one party, but declined to identify the suitors [Adweek Online, Oct. 4].

Aegis issued a similar statement two weeks ago, after it was approached by Publicis Groupe, which later confirmed holding "preliminary" talks with Aegis.

Separately, Aegis in a statement on its Web site today confirmed that Havas chairman Vincent Bolloré has acquired additional shares, raising his personal stake to 12.63 percent. That makes him the single largest investor in Aegis, the latter said.

On Wednesday, at the request of the U.K. Takeover Panel, Havas issued a brief statement characterized as a "clarification" of Bolloré's position on Aegis as it relates to Havas.

Havas said public statements made by Bolloré on Aegis "were not made in [his] capacity as chairman of Havas. As a result, such statements should not be taken as having any bearing on the question of whether or not Havas might participate at any time in any offer for Aegis in any capacity."

Bolloré on Oct. 1 had confirmed that his ownership in Aegis had climbed past the 10 percent threshold, to 11.38 percent, almost double his stake one week ago.

The investments in Aegis are separate from Havas, made through the Bolloré Group operation, where representatives could not be reached for additional comment.

Now that Bolloré's Aegis stake has passed 10 percent, he can potentially be a thorn in the side of any potential rival suitor, assuming that an acquisition is not his ultimate goal, according to analysts familiar with U.K. takeover laws.

Under those statutes, the potential buyer of a public company has to accumulate more than 90 percent of the latter's shares, otherwise the remaining shareholders can insist that the company remain listed on the British stock exchanges.

At his current level of investment, Bolloré also has the right to demand shareholder meetings and submit proposals for consideration, said Richard Hitchcock, an analyst at Numis Securities.

At present, Bolloré would appear to be in a position to extract concessions from other potential Aegis buyers, analysts said.

"He can force them to maintain a listing," said Hitchcock of Bolloré. "I don't know his game plan, but perhaps it's to get himself into a position where he can agitate a bit more and perhaps cause a bit of a nuisance when it comes to trying to squeeze a bit more value out of the business."

Hitchcock said he does not believe Bolloré will make an offer for all of Aegis, something he would be legally required to do under British law if his stake reaches 30 percent.

If Publicis does make an Aegis bid, Bolloré could try to persuade Publicis to form a joint media-buying venture between Havas' Media Planning Group and Aegis' Carat or its co-owned media specialist shop Vizeum, sources said.

Bolloré has acknowledged in the past that Havas is weak in media buying. What remains unclear, said Hitchcock, is whether there is greater value to Publicis in forming such a venture, or simply absorbing Aegis into its own group of media agencies, which include Starcom MediaVest Group and ZenithOptimedia.

This story updates an item posted on Oct. 4 with news of Havas' statement.