Viva tech! Why Lévy is backing start-ups

Ahead of his retirement, Publicis Groupe's CEO is launching an investment initiative and a tech event.

Viva Technology: event launched by Lévy (left) and Groupe Les Echos’ Francis Morel
Viva Technology: event launched by Lévy (left) and Groupe Les Echos’ Francis Morel

Maurice Lévy was a humble IT worker at Publicis Groupe when he risked his life to save the company’s computer records from a fire in 1972. So it is appropriate that Lévy, now chief executive of Publicis, is marking the group’s 90th birthday and his retirement by celebrating technology.

He has launched a global initiative, called Publicis 90, to find and invest in 90 start-ups and employee projects. The winners will be announced at Viva Technology, a three-day fair in partnership with Groupe Les Echos that takes place from 30 June to 2 July.

It is hoped that up to 30,000 delegates will attend the event, which is billed as a cross between the Consumer Electronics Show and SXSW. Speakers include Google’s Eric Schmidt and Tim Armstrong of AOL.

The puzzle is why Lévy, who steps down next year after 30 years as chief executive, did not try to turn Publicis into more of a tech champion before.

One reason is that France has been a tech laggard, as Maxime Baffert, head of Publicis 90 and Lévy’s former executive assistant, concedes. "When I visit Silicon Valley and London and Israel, clearly we are behind," Baffert says on a trip to London to meet start-ups. "But France is catching up."

He believes the UK has been an early adopter of technology because the economy has been stronger than in France and there are more investors thanks to London’s role as a financial hub.

A fitting celebration

The idea behind Publicis 90 is that investing between €10,000 and €500,000 each in 90 start-ups is a better way to mark a 90th birthday than a coffee-table book or corporate film.

Publicis received more than 3,500 applications. These have been cut down to a shortlist of 320, split evenly between four regions – France, the rest of Europe and the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific. Thirty-three start-ups are from the UK.

About 60 Publicis employees are on the shortlist and could be entitled to a paid sabbatical. But it will mean the company can take an 80% stake if their idea is successful.

One tech industry figure suggests Publicis 90 should be an annual event if the company is serious about building links with start-ups. Baffert says it’s a one-off, though he points out that Starcom already has an outreach initiative, NextTechNow, while Publicis invests in start-ups through Iris Capital.

Ahead of Viva Technology, start-ups have been set challenges by established companies such as LVMH, Axa and AccorHotels, which could lead to partnerships. "Maurice has been contemplating it for at least ten years," Baffert says of the Paris event. "He’s very patriotic." That said, virtually all the talks at Viva Technology will be in English to reflect its international outlook.

Baffert, whose day job is running Publicis’ web design company Proximedia, is a former civil servant who got frustrated with the French public sector.

He says Lévy is easier to work for than many previous bosses: "He treats people with respect." Lévy thinks "like a chess player" and can be "funny" too, Baffert adds. When the 2013 merger with Omnicom collapsed, it didn’t faze Lévy as "he’s seen the ups and downs" over the years.

It was Lévy who memorably said: "Everyone is starting to worry about being Uber-ed." But Baffert is optimistic that the ad industry can regain the initiative. "We don’t have to be taxis," he claims. "We can be the Uber."

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