Close-Up: Live issue - Has Publicis' Levy appointed his heir-apparent?

The appointment of Olivier Fleurot signals a return to Gallic control for the Publicis Groupe network, John Tylee writes.

The coup de theatre was typical Maurice Levy. Not only did he manage to keep the lid on the resignation of the head of his flagship network for three months, but only let the news out once the new management line-up was ready for its photocall.

It was not until Richard Pinder and Olivier Fleurot, respectively the new chief operating officer and executive chairman of the Publicis network, were wheeled into a meeting of the executive committee in Paris on Wednesday (4 October) last week that the Publicis Groupe chairman's secret had been shared beyond his closest associates. Some had been taken into his confidence only the previous day.

"Levy is a careful operator who doesn't like a problem without a solution," one says. "It's characteristic of the man that when something like this happens he will go into a dark corner and won't come out until he has an answer."

Levy's behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings began in July when Rick Bendel, the network's British-born chief operating officer, told his boss he was leaving to join Asda, the Wal-Mart-owned UK supermarket chain, as its marketing director (see Live Issue, opposite). "It meant spending all of August and September juggling options before doing what I thought was right," Levy says.

Bendel's decision to quit Publicis after 15 years was not a total surprise, despite being tipped by some as a possible successor to Levy, 64, when the latter retires in 2010.

His explanation for leaving was partly that he had been offered a dream job with a client with whom he had enjoyed a long association. "Asda is one of the great loves of Rick's life," the Publicis UK group chairman, Tim Lindsay, says. But it was also because of the shattering demands of his current role.

"When you're on a plane all the time, it becomes tough on yourself and the people around you," Bendel says. "I wasn't looking for a move - but I was also conscious of the fact that, during the past four years, I've spent just one weekend a month at home."

In any case, Bendel's reluctance to relocate to Paris was a running problem. The French capital is home to some of Publicis' biggest multinational clients, as well as being the network's financial, managerial and spiritual heart.

"When I offered Rick the job of COO, it was on condition that he would relocate to Paris," Levy says. "But, after more than a year, I came to the conclusion that he would never do it. I respect him for wanting to be a good husband and father, but it was starting to become a difficult situation."

Levy denies giving his COO an ultimatum, but it is clear that by keeping his UK base Bendel would not make chief executive.

"Bendel is going to a big job but the fact remains that Publicis is in his veins," an insider says. "He'd been on a promise but it never materialised. Had he been given the chief executive job, I doubt he would have gone."

Whatever the truth, it is clear that the departure of Bendel (he now becomes a client of Publicis in London) has provided the opportunity for Publicis to fulfil its emotional need to revert to French leadership. This time under the former Financial Times chief executive Fleurot.

Indeed, Pinder is taking over Bendel's role; Fleurot is an extra, Gallic, layer of management. "Filling the chief executive's job has been Levy's preoccupation."

Despite Fleurot and Levy having known each other for more than a decade, the appointment has an element of haste about it. "It's more of an arranged marriage than a romance," a Publicis senior manager suggests.

Nevertheless, Fleurot, 54, seems to be going down well with his new senior team. "Very smart and extremely nice" is one early verdict. "He's a quality operator," another top manager remarks. "By his own admission he doesn't have an industry background, but his FT experience means he's used to dealing with senior clients, which gives him a running start."

Levy says: "With Olivier, it's a case of 'what you see is what you get'. Not only is he straight and direct, but his bi-cultural experience brings us something different."

Fleurot's arrival will almost certainly herald moves by the network to address its digital shortcomings. He has recently been developing emerging digital technology at the FT's Pearson parent and expects to import that experience into Publicis. "The impact of digital on advertising and marketing is huge," he says. "We have to face the digital challenge."

Senior managers agree Publicis has to play catch-up with other networks. "We need some digital creative agencies tied up alongside us," one says. "But we are investing in the category and there are acquisitions in the pipeline."

For the London-born Pinder, 42, the Publicis job - announced almost 20 years to the day since he joined Grey as a graduate trainee - is another milestone in a career in which, according to those who know him, high ambition has not destroyed his basic niceness.

"Of all the graduates I ever hired, Richard was the best of the lot and he's got the job he deserves," Roger Edwards, the former Grey London chairman, declares.

"He was determined to do well from the beginning and thought nothing of working 12- or 14-hour days," Edwards adds. "Some people mistook that commitment for coldness, but I never found him to be that way."

Some believe Pinder's time working in Asia has equipped him well for the Publicis job. Steve Gatfield, Lowe's worldwide chief executive, recruited Pinder as the regional managing director for Leo Burnett Asia-Pacific when he was the COO of the Publicis Groupe-owned network. He says: "The experience has taught Richard a lot about global operations and clients. He's now a true internationalist."

Pinder first came to Levy's attention as the Burnett EMEA president when both were involved in last year's successful pitch by Publicis Groupe's for Samsung's $600 million global account.

"I came to know him as more than just a Burnett executive," Levy says. "He has a broad breadth of experience, having worked in Asia and Europe, and has been successful in every job he has done. He understands creativity and the needs of clients."

This, though, is not to suggest that Pinder's transfer from one part of the Publicis Groupe empire to another will be problem-free.

For one thing, he is moving from a US-influenced corporate culture at Burnett to the much more individualistic and entrepreneurial environment at Publicis, which largely reflects the personality of its leader.

"There's no question that Pinder is a bright man who works hard," a Publicis senior manager says. "But the adaptation is going to be a bit difficult for him."

For another, there is the little matter of Publicis politics. "There are some senior people within the network who have worked hard and will have seen themselves as contenders for Pinder's job," a group source says.

"A few of those will have had to be taken into Levy's confidence when he was examining his options. As an outsider, Pinder will need to win them over."

Of course, the most intriguing question is what bearing the latest changes will have on the taboo subject of the Publicis succession. Is Fleurot now Levy's anointed heir? "That's for others to say," he smiles.

Some of those others suggest it is possible but not certain. "Fleurot is the right age and the right nationality," one senior executive says. "But it would be wrong to assume that it's a foregone conclusion. The latest process has led to others having their credentials re-evaluated."

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