THE KINGS OF MADISON AVENUE: Maurice Levy - The Publicis chief regrets nothing, not even the True North adventure, John Tylee discovers

Not merely miles of ocean but a cultural chasm divide Madison Avenue and the Champs-Elysees where Maurice Levy, the Publicis chairman, has concluded that the kingdom he once tried to claim will be perpetually impregnable to frontal foreign assault.

Not merely miles of ocean but a cultural chasm divide Madison

Avenue and the Champs-Elysees where Maurice Levy, the Publicis chairman,

has concluded that the kingdom he once tried to claim will be

perpetually impregnable to frontal foreign assault.



Whether it was opportunism, a craving to cast aside French advertising’s

inferiority complex or just plain hubris that drove him into a hostile

bid for his erstwhile US global partner, True North, is something only

God and he knows.



What’s certain is that failing to capture a worldwide network for

Publicis at a stroke has left him a wiser but by no means a sadder man.

On the contrary, he appears to relish the idea of taking by stealth a

market that will not yield to him by direct means.



The overwhelming lesson he has learned from his unsuccessful tangle with

True North and its lawyers is that Publicis cannot compete with the US

communications power players on their terms. That if having the world’s

number one network is beyond it, having the best agency in each country

in which it operates is not.



He recognises also that the quality of Publicis’s problem-solving and

the strength of its creativity will have to compensate for other

perceived disadvantages if his ambition to join the top half dozen

global networks is to be fulfilled.



’I don’t believe I can outperform Omnicom or WPP for which I have great

respect. If I’m competing in the top league with the same tools there’s

no reason why a client will choose me. We have to bring fresh and

innovative ways of working that the others can’t or won’t. We’re David

against Goliath but we have a ferocious will to win. And we can as long

as we all share the passion for great work and solving clients’

problems.’



Passion is something Levy talks about a lot. He says it’s what drives

him and what lies at the heart of the relationship with the agency he

has served since 1971. Fire, too, has a fascination. Ask him whether, at

57, he ever contemplates retirement and he replies it will happen only

’on the day the fire leaves me’.



Fire is embedded deep in the Publicis psyche not only because it has

been a destroyer but because it represents the agency’s pride and

strength gained through triumph over adversity.



These collective feelings are manifested in the glass-encased

17th-century bible in Levy’s office. Now badly charred, it used to sit

on the desk of the agency’s founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and was

one of the few items to be salvaged from the blaze that razed Publicis

to the ground in 1972.



The first page to escape destruction is from the Book of Genesis and

recounts how the city of Sodom burned ’in an ardent fire’. The symbolism

is not lost on Levy. ’If Marcel and I share anything it’s an ardent fire

which tells me Publicis is something special.’



Bleustein-Blanchet’s rebuilding of Publicis after the flames consumed

not only its home but its records, archives, files and creative work is

now part of its folklore and still influences events there. Not least in

sustaining the deep bond between the workers and their workplace at the

head of the Champs-Elysees where the agency’s phoenix-like rise from the

ashes occurred.



The building is bursting at the seams and Levy is having to switch some

agency operations into other parts of Paris to ease congestion. To break

with its history by moving the entire agency elsewhere isn’t an

option.



In death as in life, Bleustein-Blanchet’s influence on Publicis and on

Levy, his protege, remains profound and pervasive. His laughing face

looks down paternally from a huge photograph that dominates the

reception area where visitors are shown a replica of the door of his

first office - two rooms and a kitchen above a delicatessen in Faubourg

Montmartre - which he opened in 1927.



The furniture-maker’s son was the undisputed father of French

advertising, perpetually deploring his countrymen’s aversion to it and

always learning from the Americans how to do it better. Iconoclastic and

fiercely entrepreneurial, he packed several lives into the one which

ended in April 1996 at the age of 89.



Not only did he establish France’s largest agency but also the country’s

first commercial radio station. Edith Piaf made her first broadcasts on

Radio-Cite and from it the nation first heard news of the Anschluss.

After fleeing to London to escape the Gestapo, he flew bombing missions

with the US air force and became an aide to De Gaulle. He was a

millionaire at 33 and was dating pretty young women until the end. At

his 80th birthday party a clutch of former French prime ministers paid

their respects.



How does Levy follow such an act? He respects the legacy he has been

handed - Bleustein-Blanchet told him on his first day at the agency that

some day he would run the place - but isn’t overwhelmed by it. He is

anxious not to come across as a sycophant, pointing to the arguments he

and his mentor had over the years. Certainly, the deferential way in

which staffers greet their charismatic six-foot two-inch boss on a tour

around the agency leaves little doubt that Levy is his own man.



’Marcel was passionate about creativity (there’s that word again) and I

share that passion,’ he declares. ’And because he always gave me the

feeling I owned the agency I worked as if I did. I’ve never been as good

at dealing with people as he was but what he taught me was how to cope

with clients. You have to respect them but be respected by them.

Everybody at Publicis must be respected by the clients.’



Today, Bleustein-Blanchet’s office, adjoining Levy’s own and sharing a

sweeping view across the Arc de Triomphe, is still as its famous

occupant left it. It’s not a museum but a symbol of respect, Levy

insists.



Appropriately, it is still used by Bleustein-Blanchet’s daughter,

Elisabeth.



Her 40 per cent stake makes her the group’s largest shareholder, due

largely to Levy’s willingness to be her father’s surrogate and impose

his will from beyond the grave by brokering a deal to settle a boardroom

battle which threatened to take Publicis out of family control.



Elisabeth’s sister, Michele, had planned to sell her shares, upsetting

the complex family trust system put in place by her father. Levy,

fearing the psychological effect on staff and clients should the group

become fully public, headed off the threat by turning Michele into one

of France’s richest women, worth an estimated pounds 100 million.



Levy acknowledges it was a difficult time but insists his course of

action was easy and pre-ordained. ’Marcel asked me to do something to

protect the interests of his family and I did it. He had chosen

Elisabeth to be at the helm because she respects his legacy. It was very

clear which way I had to go.’



On the international stage, neither Levy’s strategy nor his objectives

have seemed quite so obvious. Leaping into bed with M&C Saatchi when

still married to True North. Launching a hostile bid for True North

when, by his own admission, such tactics rarely work.



Is he a gambler? ’Absolutely not.’ An opportunist? Almost certainly.



He was the first to phone Maurice Saatchi after the boardroom coup which

ousted him, setting the stage for a successful joint pitch for the

British Airways global account. ’I’ve had a clear strategy in mind for

many years,’ he claims. ’I may sometimes act in an opportunist way - but

I will manage those opportunities.’



The way in which the True North fracas evolved says a lot about

Levy.



He has an ill-disguised contempt for politicians - ’You can never

guarantee the quality of their product’ - and has never shrunk from

saying what he believes to be the truth and to hell with the

consequences.



It was True North’s economy with the truth about its intended takeover

of Bozell which prompted him to go to court, he says. And the takeover

bid? ’True North was never a target even though it would have given us

our network. What we did was an attempt to make people listen to

us.’



Today, he still bristles over what he perceives were the patronising

attitudes of True North and Bruce Mason, its former chairman. ’Mason

thinks we come from the third world. We may be good enough to choose the

wine for his table but not to sit at it.’ Nor does he forget the time

Mason addressed him as ’my dear friend’.



’We’re not friends,’ Levy responded.



Some will see such comments as evidence of a huge Gallic chip on the

shoulder. Levy adds weight to such views by suggesting that Publicis is

hampered not just because it is European but because it is French.

What’s more, he claims, the subtleties of French advertising win it no

favours from international juries.



Sour grapes? More probably the views of somebody whose long period in

French advertising has bred an almost obsessive desire to see it

successful abroad in order to achieve proper status at home.



Levy’s own route into advertising is a curious one. He is part of a

Sephardic family - as were the Saatchi brothers - from Spain, which his

father fled after the civil war. Levy senior ended up in Algeria but

moved to neighbouring Morocco which was less repressive in its treatment

of Jews. His son was born there but the family eventually settled in

post-war France.



After university in New Jersey in the 60s, he began work as an

electronic data processor and was about to be swallowed by a giant

corporation when he was offered the chance to run a Paris agency’s

computer department.



’I remember sitting in the lobby watching people come and go. They were

all about my age. The girls wore miniskirts and the boys had long hair

and sneakers like me. It was then I said to myself that advertising was

the place I should be.’



Within five years Levy, who found he was spending more time with

creatives than computers, was offered the agency’s managing

directorship. He rejected it in favour of a move to Publicis. ’I

reckoned that if they were offering me the managing director’s job at

the age of 29, when I still had lots to learn, I was with the wrong

people.’



His IT background has helped shape his philosophy of combining logic

with creativity, he says. He may need ample supplies of both if he is to

grow a credible global network from French roots. The paucity of

France-based worldwide advertisers is a major constraint. So too, he

claims, is the historic hostility to advertising in a country where

government service and farming - ’I hate grass and cows’ - are regarded

as noble callings but making money is not.



Levy does not minimise the problems of taking Publicis global. But he is

not overawed by them. ’Will it be difficult? Very. Will it be

possible?



Yes.’ A voracious acquisition programme has been completed at speed with

the group now claiming presence in 72 countries, and Levy brushes off

suggestions that a network created so quickly cannot have a common

culture.



’We share the same values and a family atmosphere which is very

Publicis.’



He doesn’t necessarily see the restrictive atmosphere in which French

advertising operates as a disadvantage. French consumers’ resistance to

hard sell has bred a subtle and stylish creative approach, he

believes.



He even suggests that, when it comes to advertising, French arrogance

gives way to pragmatism. ’We know how modestly our advertising is

regarded by other countries. We don’t claim to have invented everything

ourselves and our respect for other cultures allows us to look at things

differently as a group.’



Certainly there are some gems on the international stall he has set

out.



Publicis in London, so long bedevilled by a revolving-door management,

has grown steadily if unspectacularly and is all the stronger for it, he

says.



Hal Riney, the San Francisco hotshop acquired last year, shines

brightly, too, although Levy is candid about the problems yet to be

solved in his old battleground across the Atlantic. Publicis has a

presence in Seattle, Dallas, New York and Chicago. It is the last two

cities which need bolstering but he is reluctant to dilute the Publicis

brand by opening a Hal Riney outpost on the East Coast. ’We have to be

careful. We want to build our business in the US and also our name. If

we’re going to work with US advertisers we need to be respected as a

worldwide brand.’



The development of a below-the-line infrastructure underpins the

expansion.



Plans are afoot for Publicis Dialog to grow beyond Europe and the US,

alongside the electronic communications specialist, Publicis

Technology.



Such ambition contrasts with the private Levy, who describes himself as

’a simple man’. Married for 35 years to the girl he met as a student and

the father of three grown-up sons, he is a lover of antiques and

collects contemporary paintings. Sometimes he takes the 30-minute walk

to the agency from his apartment on the Left Bank’s Boulevard Saint

Germain. ’In the winter it’s pleasant, in the summer it’s perfect.’



But while Levy may express joy in such uncomplicated delights, it’s

equally true that this is somebody for whom the song, Je ne Regrette

Rien, might have been written. A simple man? The mischievous smile that

accompanies the words suggests nothing of the kind.



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