Rick Bendel as the head of the Publicis network? A few years ago the idea of the show being run by such a rough-hewed diamond, who speaks French like Del Boy Trotter and has never managed to shed his streetwise media boy image, would have seemed absurd.
But times and needs change. Maurice Levy's Publicis must adapt to prove it is evolving from its Gallic roots into a truly multinational and multicultural group. With an outspoken Levy at the helm, Publicis is too often associated with French quirkiness, rather than international business prowess. British-born Bendel's task is to turn that perception on its head.
Bendel, promoted to chief operating officer after Publicis' closure of D'Arcy last week, says: "Publicis Worldwide has been one of the fastest growing networks in the world. Our image, however, has tended to be dominated by Maurice and our acquisition strategy. My main task is to ensure Publicis is recognised for its skills, different way of working and outstanding ability at creating international ideas that work regionally, locally and globally."
The fates seem to have dealt him a perfect hand. "He's the right age at the right time," an insider says. "Levy's senior managers are the wrong side of 50. All have had their opportunities and none have come through. This is Bendel's chance."
Indeed, some moot the prospect that the son of a one-time sweet stall market trader in London's East End may one day be to Levy as the Publicis chairman was to the agency's founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet.
This is all the more curious when logic suggests a chasm as wide and deep as the English Channel ought to separate Levy, the urbane antique-loving art collector, and Bendel, who often comes across as brooding and sullen.
However, Bendel counters: "Levy explained to our network in an all-staff memo that the reason he had promoted me was due to 'my human and inter-personal skills coupled with my love for working with clients'. Because I see these characteristics in Maurice, I think I have a huge amount in common with him and we and our people find our working styles very similar."
Levy is fulsome in praise of his favoured choice, describing him as somebody who understands "the culture and the soul of Publicis".
"The Frogs have gone for a Brit and, in doing so, we've shown that we're not chauvinistic in the way we run our business and that we're true to our belief about being multicultural," he explains.
But why Bendel? Much seems to be down to the fact that he's run a UK agency which has risen towards the top of the rankings. Bendel's ability to create a stable and consistent management line-up at a shop once noted for too much turmoil at senior level and to nurture the retail business which has fuelled its growth has marked him out with Levy as worth grooming.
Certainly, there's a lot more to Bendel than appearances suggest. The bruiser image belies his public school education and is said to be more cultivated than natural.
Mark Robinson, the agency's ex-new-business director, says: "Rick gets slagged off for being a media barrow boy but it's a front. The brusque exterior conceals a very sharp intellect."
Certainly behind the facade is a man of stark contradiction. His shyness means he has little profile outside Publicis. He doesn't work the London circuit and he's never seen at an IPA event. A former associate says: "The best thing about Rick is he is intensely loyal to those who are loyal to him. The worst is his reputation for pursuing his own agenda and if people don't go along with it he can be a bit sneaky."
What's universally acknowledged is Bendel's ability to read people well and to establish the most unlikely professional relationships. After all, he's done it with Levy. Like Levy, he's able to pile in the business, and is a workaholic. "What Rick's clients want they get," a former Publicis senior manager comments. "I've seen him dive over dinner tables to get near a client he needs to talk to."
Bendel's political astuteness is also reflected in his evolving role as Levy's "fixer", the result of an intimate knowledge of how Publicis works. "Rick is a rebel but a dutiful figure when he has to be," a former colleague says.
"Publicis is the most overtly political place you could find," an insider claims. "Levy's power is absolute. The way to progress is by pleasing him. That means making him look a hero and fixing things before they become an embarrassment. You don't have to be a sycophant but you do have to know how to play extreme politics."
Bendel's task is formidable. Levy is looking to Publicis as the engine room of the enlarged Publicis Groupe and Bendel must knit together a disparate network. Key will be the consolidation of its New York office, freshly bolstered by its acquisition of D'Arcy's former clients. Bendel says: "Harnessing the power of our newfound strength in the US with our pre-eminent position in Europe allows us to be recognised as one of the most influential networks in the world. My role is to put the Publicis network on the world stage of global clients."
Bendel has proven his ability with clients and his political skills, but he now confronts complex management issues associated with building a true global network. Colleagues say he'll take it in his stride. "Rick hasn't failed at anything so far," one says. "I don't think he'll start now."