There are corner offices, and corner offices. Some enjoy stunning
high-rise views over Manhattan or Chicago; others - like Jennifer
Laing’s - look out wistfully at the Statue of Liberty. But there’s only
one on the Champs Elysees overlooking the Arc de Triomphe: Maurice
We’ve all seen the view from the Publicis president and CEO’s suite of
rooms without realising. The dapper Levy rented his terrace to film
crews during both the World Cup and the Parisian millennium
celebrations. It’s another tale to add to his fascinating history of the
Publicis building; once home successively to the Gestapo and Allied
Military Command, and which was rebuilt from the ashes of a devastating
fire in 1972.
Levy is relaxed and effusive when we meet shortly after Publicis’s
surprise acquisition of Fallon McElligott. It’s the latest step on his
path to a US network, built piecemeal after the much-publicised debacle
of his schism with True North.
It is difficult to think of another worldwide agency chief who so lives
his brand (perhaps WPP’s Martin Sorrell, but in a less emotional
It is also difficult to write about Levy without resorting to
He is characteristically filled with pride in the Publicis network, its
late founder and resistance hero, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and their
shared history and achievements.
Apologising repeatedly for ’my poor English’, and occasionally slapping
his own wrist at his malapropisms, Levy is, of course, more than
eloquent in the language. So much so that it is hard to get a word in
His lengthy, thoughtful responses drift into lyricism, but it is worth
hearing him out.
’After the True North alliance fell apart, we had two choices. One was
to try to merge with, or buy, an established network. The other was to
build piece by piece. We decided we’d do something greater by doing it
with people who would like to do it with us. There is something I
believe is the most important thing on earth when it comes to
corporations: culture. It is the major part of what is Publicis.’
Can you really buy an agency like Fallon without taking away part of its
’How to be part of a global thing without losing your soul, eh?’ he asks
with a knowing smile. ’When you see these independent people wherever
they are, they are very much like what we are. People who are demanding,
with very strong views on the work, very clear ideas of what they want
to be. At the same time they want to be independent, but be part of
In an ideal world, surely it would be Publicis Fallon McElligott just as
it is Publicis Hal Riney?
’Pat (Fallon) and I have a good chemistry. I like him. I like the agency
he has built. I believe that if I try to convince him to use the
Publicis name, I would do a very bad job. Fallon is about what Pat has
done. To change it would be to lose something important.
’I came at first to Pat to say why don’t we merge the agencies. But it’s
not Pat that rejected the idea. I cannot say he was keen, he was curious
about it. After some conversations with Pat, I came to him and said we
have the wrong idea.’
Charming and agreeable, it is easy to get sucked into Levy’s faux
naivete, particularly when he talks endearingly about the relative
’mess’ of the Publicis network’s structure, or downplays his interest in
But you don’t build Europe’s number one agency and the world’s most
significant non-US-based network without being big on ’the numbers’.
Levy persists: ’I am never looking at the numbers first. Never. I look
at the people in their eyes, look at their work. You see a cultural fit,
a personal fit. Can you trust them? Have dinner with them? It happened
that we bought small agencies of great spirit, and that we bought big
agencies of great spirit. But we never bought size for size.’
True, but in the US don’t you have to be of a certain size? If you
manage a local Publicis agency, surely you would wish for business to be
driven globally from the US, as with most major networks?
’Yes! Yes, but you don’t have to compromise,’ he argues. ’If you go for
the difficult route of building piece by piece, and you succeed, you get
great people with you - if you leave them enough freedom to express
The determination to keep Fallon separate does not solve Publicis’s
American scale issues. Levy accepts that this ’would imply’ more US
acquisition is likely (although he is not interested in the Snyder
group). There is also his recently stated ambition to establish a
greater presence in Japan, the weak link in a growing Asian network, and
an imminent repositioning of the group’s e-ventures.
Levy has a further task: a PR offensive to dispel any residual
negativity from the True North spat.
The affair clearly still rankles. He says, unprompted, that he would
like to ’say a few words’.
’I have done personally a very bad job at working on Publicis’s and my
own publicity in the US and elsewhere. When the problems started with
True North, I was pretty sure we would find a solution, and I did not
want to fuel the situation with bitterness.
’During the two-year fight before the takeover bid, I did not explain
the problems to the press and Bruce Mason (then True North’s CEO) did.
Therefore I had the image of this French Napoleon who was not a very
good partner, who was not helpful. In fact, the situation was entirely
Levy, claiming Mason kept him in the dark first about the creation of
True North and then the acquisition of Bozell, today accepts that he
reacted ’very negatively’.
’FCB was strong in the US, and Bozell was strong in the US - that would
not lead to two global networks,’ he continues. ’As a stockholder, I
wanted to be heard. Maybe I have not done the right thing, maybe I
haven’t explained myself very well. But I was very sincere about the
fact that they were doing the wrong thing.’
Levy knows that whatever the cause of the situation, he cannot
ultimately maintain a global network that relies on just three
trans-Atlantic clients: Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard and Whirlpool.
He is a clever strategic thinker, who has the beguiling conviction and
marketing savvy of a French Maurice Saatchi. Indeed, the two have long
maintained a mutual admiration society. Levy was the first person to
call Saatchi upon news of the latter’s ousting in late 1994. He has even
taken to dressing in Saatchi-esque dark suits.
However, as he points out constantly, life would be boring if meeting
French people or going to a French agency was exactly the same as
anywhere else in the world. ’We don’t want clones,’ he says, before
expounding upon the virtues of being French in an Anglo-American world
(no stereotyping then).
This is an oblique reference to the decision of his deadly rival, Euro
RSCG, to appoint the American, Bob Schmetterer, to run that network from
’What is wrong with being French? Why fight what you are? It makes us
unique. All other networks are run out of New York (whatever they may
say) and have a view of the world formed from the standpoint of the
world’s dominant country and the world’s dominant economy. It can lead
you to treat all other countries like dominions.’
Maurice Levy is certainly unique. I’m not sure that Publicis will remain
a buyer not a seller in the long term. But one can’t help hoping that he
makes it. Without him, the world advertising scene would be a duller
place. ’Vive la difference!’ indeed.