UPDATE 2-Havas 2008 earnings top forecasts, no word on '09
* 2008 earnings beat forecasts, dividend unchanged
* No guidance for 2009
* Bollore says Aegis "seems in good hands"
* (adds Bollore comments from news conference, details)
By Dominique Vidalon and Cyril Altmeyer
PARIS, March 2 (Reuters) - Havas (EURC.PA), the world's sixth-largest advertising group, delivered sharply higher profits on Monday, beating forecasts, due to client gains and cost control, but kept its dividend unchanged at 4 euro cents.
Chairman and main shareholder, French financier Vincent Bollore, would not commit to a forecast for 2009 amid a global economic slump.
But he vowed to win advertising contracts of 100-150 million euros, having landed 1.6 billion euros in net new business in 2008. Havas competes with France's Publicis (PUBP.PA) and Britain's WPP (WPP.L).
Meawhile finances improved, with net debt slashed by 65 percent to 79 million euros and operating cash flow of 292 million euros. Cash flow generation continued to improve in January and February 2009 and Bollore ruled out share buybacks.
Calling its liquidity situation "highly satisfactory", Havas said it had unused medium-term credit lines of 170 million euros and nearly 300 milion euros in short-term credit lines.
"All of the group's fundamentals, underlying sales growth, new business, profitability and financial capacity are positive and competitive again," Chief Executive Fernando Rodes Vila said in a statement.
Operating profit rose 12.5 percent to 189 million euros ($238.5 million), thanks to cost cuts.
This translated into an operating margin of 12.1 percent of 1.568 billion euros in sales against 11 percent in 2007.
"POSITIVE VIBES" ON AEGIS
Bollore, who is also the largest shareholder of Aegis with a 29.9 percent stake, was tight-lipped regarding his plans towards the British media buying group.
He said that Aegis "seems to be in good hands" and that he had "positive vibes" on its latest developments.
There has long been specualation that Bollore would one day seek some kind of linkup between Havas and Aegis.
The shock exit of Aegis's chief executive in November 2008 and a depressed Aegis share price had revived that speculation recently.
Aegis has long been seen as a potential target or break-up candidate. In January, British newspapers reported that Aegis Chairman John Napier was lining up advisers to carry out a strategic review of its business.
Havas had guided for an operating margin of 11-12 percent of sales, in line with the sector's average.
Havas, whose clients range from France Telecom (FTE.PA) to Coca-Cola (KO.N), said closely-watched underlying revenue growth was 4.7 percent, near the high end of company's forecast for growth of around 4.5-5 percent.
In the fourth quarter, underlying growth was 2 percent.
Growth continued to be sustained in all mature markets, except for the Arnold unit in the United States, it said.
2008 net profit rose 25 percent to 104 million euros.
Analysts polled by Reuters Estimates banked on earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) of 179 million euros, net profit of 93 million euros and revenue of 1.549 billion euros.
Last month, domestic rival Publicis reported a 2008 operating margin of 16.7 percent of sales and underlying sales growth of 3.8 percent. (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by David Cowell)
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