Feature

Life with Levy

Many believe the Publicis Groupe chairman has no time for hobbies, but he reveals to Mark Tungate his love for contemporary art and rock music.

The Publicis Groupe chairman, Maurice Levy, is undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in advertising. But what does he get up to in his (limited) spare time?

"There's no point in asking Maurice Levy about his hobbies," a French advertising executive told me. "All he does is work." Another person insisted that Levy gets into his office at dawn and stays there until it's time to dine - usually with a powerful contact.

After all, Levy is said to be so well-connected that he can simply pick up the phone and get through to Jacques Chirac. Certainly, the French press lists among his "large circle of acquaintances" everyone from Jean-Marie Colombani, the managing editor of Le Monde, to Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and presidential hopeful.

Although your correspondent was impressed by all this gossip, it was hard to believe that Levy's life was entirely dominated by his work. I already knew, for example, that he appreciates contemporary art; he is the president of the Palais de Tokyo, the city's hippest art space. Somewhat less reliably, I figured that he's French, and must therefore have an innate appreciation of food, wine and hedonism in general.The truth, of course, is somewhere between the two. Over a cup of coffee in his comfortable and hushed office, Levy reluctantly agreed to talk about "the man behind the man". (When I uttered this rather daft phrase, he looked behind himself to check that no-one was there - so we know that he has a sense of humour.)

- Is it true that you spend all your time at work? Do you really get here at 5.00am and work until long after everyone else has left?

Five o'clock? Not quite ... I get up at about 5.00am or 5.30am, and I arrive between 6.00am and 7.00am. But it's fair to say that I like to get here early. It gives you the opportunity to look at the mails that have arrived during the night, to respond to them, to think for a bit and generally to get some work done without being disturbed by the phone. I usually have my first meeting at about 8.00am.

- And what time do you leave?

There's no typical day. Often I have a dinner after work, so that could extend my day until 11.00pm. If not, it's around 9.00pm. That adds up to about 14 or 15 hours per day - so I've done the famous French 35-hour week before Wednesday lunchtime. Then I go on holiday, of course (laughs). To be honest, I like the 35-hour week so much that I do it a couple of times a week.

- Do you have a personal staff?

I have two personal assistants - one of them is English, by the way, Frances Shiner. One arrives at about 8.30 in the morning and leaves at about 7.00 in the evening, while the other arrives at about 10.30 and leaves at about 10.00 at night. There's also a third member of the team who sorts and categorises the various files and messages that require my attention.

- Do you work at the weekend, too?

Several weekends a year I relax completely, usually when I'm out of the country. Otherwise, I tend to work for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday, most often at the office but occasionally at home.

- Where is home, exactly?

I live on the boulevard Saint Germain.

- In the heart of the Left Bank! So you're a real Parisian?

I adore Paris. When I travel, I'm always happy to return. Paris has so many pleasurable facets: in the morning when the sun is coming up; at night when the city is illuminated. I've always resisted the temptation to move. We have a country house in Provence, but when I'm here I like to be in the middle of the city. I'm an urban person. At the weekend, I walk around Paris. Not stroll, mind you, but walk! I like to visit galleries, markets ... I'd love to be able to walk to work, but that extra half-an-hour is too precious.

- You mentioned galleries earlier. You're the president of the Palais de Tokyo (contemporary art museum). How did you get involved?

Well, you know, Paris can be like a small village, and my interest in contemporary art is fairly well known. So they got in touch with me. I appreciate contemporary art even in its most expressive, most audacious and most baffling forms. With art I don't seek to understand - I seek emotion, and contemporary art delivers that. The Palais de Tokyo is a showcase for the most advanced contemporary art in Paris: it is on the edge, almost excessive. I believe that art should provoke.

- Were you annoyed when Francois Pinault (the president of the fashion and retail group PPR) was forced to go to Venice to find a home for his art collection because of crippling bureaucracy here in Paris?

It's disgraceful that France was unable to mobilise itself for him. It's beyond embarrassing ... it's pathetic and saddening. But I'm glad he was able to find a solution in Venice, where he has established a magnificent space for his collection.

- Some people say advertising is an art form ...

They meet at the same crossroads, but I don't believe advertising should be an art. You have to distinguish the purpose of advertising from its means of expression - and its purpose is to sell.

Having said that, in order to achieve its aim, advertising must speak to the head, the heart and the senses of consumers. It must use a wide range of techniques in order to break through the wall of indifference.

The talent of a creative is to assimilate the arts - cinema, photography, graphic design and so forth - and use them to express an idea, a story or an image in a captivating manner. Selling remains the ultimate goal, but advertising needs to make that creative leap, otherwise it is nothing more than the banal expression of a marketing necessity.

- What is it that appeals to you about advertising as a profession?

Advertising is fascinating because it has three dimensions: the intellectual, the rational and the emotive.

- We've discussed art, but Paris is also famous for its food. Any Maurice Levy restaurant tips?

There's a wide range! Of course, I adore la grande cuisine, and I have a real affection for chefs such as Alain Ducasse, Bernard Pacaud of L'Ambroisie and famous restaurants such as Taillevent. But I also like smaller places, such as the excellent fish restaurant La Cagouille in Montparnasse, or a few places I've stumbled across in Saint Germain.

And, of course, when I'm working I enjoy eating here on the terrace of the Publicis Drugstore, or at Le Marcel. But I must add that I am extremely lucky, in that my wife is a real cordon bleu. We often dine out together, but she is capable of cooking the most sublime meals. When it comes to la patisserie, she really excels.

- Can you tell me a little more about your family?

My wife is called Raquel - we've been married for 40 years. And I have three grown sons with families of their own: each of them have two children.

We all get together quite regularly, sometimes in Provence, perhaps in Italy, but it's always a wonderful occasion.

- What about your friends? People often talk about how well-connected you are. Is there a "Levy gang"?

(Laughing) I'd hardly call it a gang, but I do have quite a few friends whom I see very regularly. These are friendships that have built up over the years: one might say over a lifetime. I believe in deep friendships.

I don't have pals - I have friends. I should also point out that I don't "live" in the world of advertising. I love my metier and I admire the people who work in it, but I don't feel the need to socialise with my competitors during my rare moments of spare time.

- It's well known that you started out as an IT specialist. Are you still interested in technology?

I can't programme any more, but I appreciate all kinds of technology, and I take full advantage of the benefits that it offers. I am, I would say, over-equipped in that department.

- Does that include a very expensive hi-fi system? Are you into music?

I don't have a particularly musical ear. I enjoy going to the opera or a classical recital when the opportunity presents itself, but I come from the rock generation, and that's the sound I continue to appreciate.

My musical tastes are rooted in the late 50s and the 60s. My taste is very Anglo-Saxon - I've never been enthusiastic about French rock, although I was a fan of Gainsbourg.

- We should talk about literature, too.

My taste is very wide, but I always have the same problem, which is that I like to read things in a short space of time.

I don't like reading books in fragments. So whether it's The Da Vinci Code or the latest book by (the contemporary French philosopher) Bernard-Henri Levy, I save them for a period when I know I'll be able to read them entirely over two or three days. And as I tend to work even when I'm on planes, those periods are few and far between. Plus, on a daily basis, I like to leaf through books and essays on political and economic issues, which are extremely useful to my work and fascinating in their own right. All of which, unhappily, leaves little room for literature.

- Are there any hobbies you would take up if you had more time?

There is something I once loved to do but have had to let go of, which is playing chess. I used to spend entire Saturday afternoons playing, but it has been several months since my last game. It's a marvellous game because everything is right there in front of you. There are no cards up sleeves, no hidden tricks. You can watch your opponent's moves, and from those you should be able to divine his intentions. On the basis of that knowledge, you can constrain him and attack him. It requires concentration, intelligence and a little psychology - because you can make strategic moves that are designed to lure your opponent into a trap.

- You realise this offers a journalist plenty of room for metaphors about your approach to the advertising industry?

(Spreads his hands and smiles broadly) It was just to make the picture a little more complete.

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