Maurice Lévy plots 'diplomatic' solution for the future of Publicis

The Publicis Groupe chief tells Maisie McCabe what the collapsed merger means for his succession plan.

Maurice Lévy, the chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe, shrugs when Campaign asks about the collapsed merger with Omnicom.

He pulls out a photo of himself with John Wren, the president and chief executive of Omnicom, and Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP’s chief executive, taken after they had dinner together a few nights earlier. "If you were here this morning, you would have seen John hugging me," Lévy says, demonstrating how they have all moved on.

"Honestly, everything has been said," he continues. "Move to the future. No-one is still interested in this. It is passed. I have some good memories and some bad memories, and I’m moving ahead now and building the future. We are all moving into the future. We are fierce competitors. Everyone wants to kill the other one. We will do our best to win market share and develop something new, strong, different."

Lévy’s eagerness to find new answers is not surprising after a year when his other plans fell apart. After finalising the details – "the name etc" – in Cannes in June 2013, Lévy and Wren went on to confirm a merger that July. But, after failing to agree on major issues such as naming a chief financial officer, they called the whole thing off in May, citing "cultural differences".

Now, Lévy is plotting a different future in what looks like his natural habitat: under a parasol on the terrace of the Majestic hotel. He is looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the company as a whole and agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi, DigitasLBi and Starcom Media­Vest Group in particular.

Despite finishing the previous day’s final phone call at 2am and having had his first meeting at 7.30am on the morning of his interview with Campaign, Lévy is fresh and chatty. After all, in the old days, he used to stay up for three days in a row. "Like Napoleon," he quips.

But, unlike Napoleon, Lévy is looking for a "diplomatic" solution for Publicis’ future – he has asked all the chief executives and their teams to come up with ideas for "how the future should be". He dismisses the rumour that the holding company is about to announce a return to a full-service offering by merging its creative and media shops, saying any new structures will be more about the "profile of the group".

We are all moving into the future. We are fierce competitors. Everyone wants to kill the other one

"We have today the largest digital penetration of any agency in the world and we will be even more digital in the future," Lévy explains. "We will be much more an internet company than an advertising group. That’s clear. The way we will be organising our agencies and the investment we will be making is not something that we have discussed, and it will not necessarily lead to any change in our organisation. It may, but it may also not."

Lévy says he hopes to detail some of these "breakthrough solutions" by the second half of September, although he stresses that no decision has been made. As an indication of a potential model for the future, Publicis last week launched a digital network called Roar, which offers a full suite of digital services. Its creation was prompted by JPMorgan Chase & Co awarding its entire digital marketing account to the group, but Roar will go after other business too.

One question the aborted merger did answer for Publicis was succession. The initial plan was for the 72-year-old Lévy and Wren to run the combined entity as co-chief executives, then for Lévy to become the chairman at a later date. Lévy now says he will not remain Publicis’ chief executive past his current tenure, which finishes at the end of 2015, but he could take another role at the company. The board will start the search for a new chief executive towards the end of this year.

Much has changed during Lévy’s 30 years at the helm of Publicis – although, arguably, the collapse of the merger has overshadowed the evolutionary journey that he has taken the company on. Yet, as the curtain prepares to fall, Lévy is hardly the sort of man to allow this to be his final act.

Although he will not be drawn on how his last scenes as the head of Publicis will pan out, Lévy hints at future structural change, which will include a bigger focus on digital (unsurprisingly) and possibly more acquisitions – though a deal as "huge" as the Omnicom merger is unlikely to reoccur.

One thing for certain is that, even with the aborted deal fresh in the memory, the ever-ambitious Lévy won’t want to leave the stage in 18 months with a whimper.

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