Interview: Maurice Levy - Levy’s Fallon deal heralds US shopping adventure/The president of Publicis speaks to Stefano Hatfield about building a network

There are corner offices, and corner offices. Some enjoy stunning high-rise views over Manhattan or Chicago; others - like Jennifer Laing’s - look out wistfully at the Statue of Liberty. But there’s only one on the Champs Elysees overlooking the Arc de Triomphe: Maurice Levy’s.

There are corner offices, and corner offices. Some enjoy stunning

high-rise views over Manhattan or Chicago; others - like Jennifer

Laing’s - look out wistfully at the Statue of Liberty. But there’s only

one on the Champs Elysees overlooking the Arc de Triomphe: Maurice

Levy’s.



We’ve all seen the view from the Publicis president and CEO’s suite of

rooms without realising. The dapper Levy rented his terrace to film

crews during both the World Cup and the Parisian millennium

celebrations. It’s another tale to add to his fascinating history of the

Publicis building; once home successively to the Gestapo and Allied

Military Command, and which was rebuilt from the ashes of a devastating

fire in 1972.



Levy is relaxed and effusive when we meet shortly after Publicis’s

surprise acquisition of Fallon McElligott. It’s the latest step on his

path to a US network, built piecemeal after the much-publicised debacle

of his schism with True North.



It is difficult to think of another worldwide agency chief who so lives

his brand (perhaps WPP’s Martin Sorrell, but in a less emotional

way).



It is also difficult to write about Levy without resorting to

stereotype.



He is characteristically filled with pride in the Publicis network, its

late founder and resistance hero, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and their

shared history and achievements.



Apologising repeatedly for ’my poor English’, and occasionally slapping

his own wrist at his malapropisms, Levy is, of course, more than

eloquent in the language. So much so that it is hard to get a word in

edgeways.



His lengthy, thoughtful responses drift into lyricism, but it is worth

hearing him out.



’After the True North alliance fell apart, we had two choices. One was

to try to merge with, or buy, an established network. The other was to

build piece by piece. We decided we’d do something greater by doing it

with people who would like to do it with us. There is something I

believe is the most important thing on earth when it comes to

corporations: culture. It is the major part of what is Publicis.’



Can you really buy an agency like Fallon without taking away part of its

culture?



’How to be part of a global thing without losing your soul, eh?’ he asks

with a knowing smile. ’When you see these independent people wherever

they are, they are very much like what we are. People who are demanding,

with very strong views on the work, very clear ideas of what they want

to be. At the same time they want to be independent, but be part of

something bigger.’



In an ideal world, surely it would be Publicis Fallon McElligott just as

it is Publicis Hal Riney?



’Pat (Fallon) and I have a good chemistry. I like him. I like the agency

he has built. I believe that if I try to convince him to use the

Publicis name, I would do a very bad job. Fallon is about what Pat has

done. To change it would be to lose something important.



’I came at first to Pat to say why don’t we merge the agencies. But it’s

not Pat that rejected the idea. I cannot say he was keen, he was curious

about it. After some conversations with Pat, I came to him and said we

have the wrong idea.’



Charming and agreeable, it is easy to get sucked into Levy’s faux

naivete, particularly when he talks endearingly about the relative

’mess’ of the Publicis network’s structure, or downplays his interest in

’the numbers’.



But you don’t build Europe’s number one agency and the world’s most

significant non-US-based network without being big on ’the numbers’.



Levy persists: ’I am never looking at the numbers first. Never. I look

at the people in their eyes, look at their work. You see a cultural fit,

a personal fit. Can you trust them? Have dinner with them? It happened

that we bought small agencies of great spirit, and that we bought big

agencies of great spirit. But we never bought size for size.’



True, but in the US don’t you have to be of a certain size? If you

manage a local Publicis agency, surely you would wish for business to be

driven globally from the US, as with most major networks?



’Yes! Yes, but you don’t have to compromise,’ he argues. ’If you go for

the difficult route of building piece by piece, and you succeed, you get

great people with you - if you leave them enough freedom to express

themselves.’



The determination to keep Fallon separate does not solve Publicis’s

American scale issues. Levy accepts that this ’would imply’ more US

acquisition is likely (although he is not interested in the Snyder

group). There is also his recently stated ambition to establish a

greater presence in Japan, the weak link in a growing Asian network, and

an imminent repositioning of the group’s e-ventures.



Levy has a further task: a PR offensive to dispel any residual

negativity from the True North spat.



The affair clearly still rankles. He says, unprompted, that he would

like to ’say a few words’.



’I have done personally a very bad job at working on Publicis’s and my

own publicity in the US and elsewhere. When the problems started with

True North, I was pretty sure we would find a solution, and I did not

want to fuel the situation with bitterness.



’During the two-year fight before the takeover bid, I did not explain

the problems to the press and Bruce Mason (then True North’s CEO) did.

Therefore I had the image of this French Napoleon who was not a very

good partner, who was not helpful. In fact, the situation was entirely

the reverse.’



Levy, claiming Mason kept him in the dark first about the creation of

True North and then the acquisition of Bozell, today accepts that he

reacted ’very negatively’.



’FCB was strong in the US, and Bozell was strong in the US - that would

not lead to two global networks,’ he continues. ’As a stockholder, I

wanted to be heard. Maybe I have not done the right thing, maybe I

haven’t explained myself very well. But I was very sincere about the

fact that they were doing the wrong thing.’



Levy knows that whatever the cause of the situation, he cannot

ultimately maintain a global network that relies on just three

trans-Atlantic clients: Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard and Whirlpool.



He is a clever strategic thinker, who has the beguiling conviction and

marketing savvy of a French Maurice Saatchi. Indeed, the two have long

maintained a mutual admiration society. Levy was the first person to

call Saatchi upon news of the latter’s ousting in late 1994. He has even

taken to dressing in Saatchi-esque dark suits.



However, as he points out constantly, life would be boring if meeting

French people or going to a French agency was exactly the same as

anywhere else in the world. ’We don’t want clones,’ he says, before

expounding upon the virtues of being French in an Anglo-American world

(no stereotyping then).



This is an oblique reference to the decision of his deadly rival, Euro

RSCG, to appoint the American, Bob Schmetterer, to run that network from

New York.



’What is wrong with being French? Why fight what you are? It makes us

unique. All other networks are run out of New York (whatever they may

say) and have a view of the world formed from the standpoint of the

world’s dominant country and the world’s dominant economy. It can lead

you to treat all other countries like dominions.’



Maurice Levy is certainly unique. I’m not sure that Publicis will remain

a buyer not a seller in the long term. But one can’t help hoping that he

makes it. Without him, the world advertising scene would be a duller

place. ’Vive la difference!’ indeed.



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