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'
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
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
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
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
Appropriately, it is still used by Bleustein-Blanchet's daughter,
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
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
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
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 are good enough to choose the
wine for his table but not to sit at it.' Nor does he forget the time
Mason called him '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 obsessive desire to see it successful
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
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
'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
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
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
He doesn't 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
Publicis in London, so long bedevilled by a revolving-door management,
has grown steadily if unspectacularly and is all the stronger for it, he
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
The development of a below-the-line infrastructure underpins the
Plans are afoot for Publicis Dialog to grow beyond Europe and the US,
alongside the electronic communications specialist, Publicis
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.
- Since this interview ran in May 1999 Publicis bought Fallon Worldwide.
More significantly, its dollars 1.9 billion takeover of Saatchi &
Saatchi in 2000 made Publicis a true player on the world stage.