The man who would be king

Jean-Yves Naouri may divide opinion but the ex-paratrooper is well-equipped to see off the opposition and succeed Maurice Levy as the next chief executive of Publicis Groupe. John Tylee reports.

Jean-Yves Naouri: Possible future Publicis Groupe chief executive
Jean-Yves Naouri: Possible future Publicis Groupe chief executive

If he plays his cards right, Jean-Yves Naouri will become only the third man to lead the Publicis organisation in its 86-year history.

He has by far the best chance of winning the game compared with his closest rivals, whose age or lack of relevant experience inhibits them from playing for such high stakes. Other erstwhile challengers have thrown in their hands and left the table.

Never forget, though, that this is Publicis, where high-level French political connections pale beside the machinations at the top of world's third-largest communications group, whose empire embraces Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett and Starcom MediaVest Group.

And with no date set for the retirement of the charismatic Maurice Levy, the Publicis Groupe chief executive for the past 25 years and one of the most influential figures in France, the game could yet end with an unexpected twist.

For anybody outside France, it's hard to understand what a big deal this is. Publicis isn't just a communications group. It's a national institution. Naouri must play his cards carefully if he is not to get trumped.

For one thing, nobody plays his cards closer to his chest than Levy. "He loves pitting people against each other to see who wins," an insider says.

For another, Naouri isn't everyone's tasse de the, as evidenced by an e-mail, purportedly written by a group of past and present Publicis staffers that circulated at the end of last year, casting Naouri as a Prince of Darkness, who rules by fear and in secrecy.

While this may be an extreme view, a senior Publicis source admits: "Jean-Yves is an acquired taste and a polarising figure. If you don't like him - and there are a lot who don't - I doubt it bothers him."

An ex-Publicis executive agrees. "Naouri has no problems being rude to people," he declares.

Certainly, the one-time paratrooper isn't one to take prisoners and questions that irritate him provoke prickly responses.

Is he perhaps doing too many jobs within the group - from running its healthcare division to overseeing its acquisitions drive in China, where he spends one week a month - to be able to do any of them properly? "You wouldn't ask Maurice or Sir Martin Sorrell if they're wearing too many hats," he retorts. "So why ask me?"

Does he think Publicis is still too French to evolve into a truly global company? "You might just as well say that Saatchis is too British or Leo Burnett too American."

And does the fact that, unlike Levy, he has never run a Publicis network make it harder for him to be an effective successor? "I'm the executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide," he shrugs. Ask the question again and the answer is the same. For Naouri, this isn't a matter for discussion.

Such abruptness suggests he will never be a Publicis frontman in the Levy mould, even though the Publicis boss acknowledged last year that his chief operating officer "is clearly in a leading position for winning the race" to take over from him when he eventually departs.

Levy has been asked to stay on for the time being (he was to have retired in February) to see the group through the recession and prepare a succession plan. Insiders claim Naouri had fully expected to be anointed Levy's successor by now.

Instead, he was named the executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide after the departure of the chief operating officer, Richard Pinder. This is said to have been on the orders of elisabeth Badinter, the chairman of the Publicis supervisory board and daughter of the group's founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet.

She insisted Naouri be given a big Paris-based job in which to fully prove himself. Naouri shrugs off suggestions that he is being put to the test but can't disguise that he wants the top job when Levy, now 70, decides to go: "It would be an exciting challenge."

"Naouri and Levy are very different characters," a Publicis executive points out. "Naouri is media-shy and much prefers to be in the back room pulling the strings."

Naouri acknowledges as much. "I don't do many interviews because I'm trying to do my job," he says tersely. "We have an outstanding leader in Maurice and I'm happy to leave all that to him. There's a very good understanding between us."

On the face of it, there aren't many similarities between Levy and his protege. Even Naouri struggles to come up with any - apart from the fact that "neither of us need much sleep".

There are commonalities, however. Both were born in North Africa (Levy in Morocco; Naouri in Algeria, then a French colony) and came to France as children. Both hail from bourgeois backgrounds and both are Jewish - considered by many to be an essential prerequisite for any would-be leader of Publicis. What's more, both entered advertising having developed expertise in other fields: Levy in IT, Naouri in engineering.

Naouri, the son of a retired paediatrician, is a product of the fiercely competitive French higher education system that has always provided the country with its Masonic-like political and commercial elite.

His alma mater was the ecole Polytechnique, established in 1794 to produce the country's best technocrats and whose alumni include two Nobel Prize winners, three presidents and the chief executives of many international companies based in France. Naouri was one of just 300 successful candidates out of more than 10,000 who applied during his intake year.

He describes the place as "a cross between West Point and MIT" and admits it shaped his outlook profoundly. "I learned how to focus on what matters," he recalls.

After a stint in the oil industry, he joined the team of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then France's minister of industry and foreign trade. "We're still friends," he says of the former International Monetary Fund chief whose hopes of becoming president were destroyed after being accused of sexual assault in a New York hotel, although the charges were later dropped. "I still have a lot of respect for him."

Some believe his links to the now disgraced politician made him interesting to Publicis, which hoped Naouri could help it maintain its long-standing ties with France's rulers.

"Levy likes to hire people with influence, either in financial or political circles," a former associate says. "He has been close to every president in the past 20 years and, with Strauss-Kahn seeming like a shoo-in for the job, he expected his protege to have a direct line to the elysee Palace just like him."

Naouri's version of the story is that he approached Levy, who he had met socially, to ask his advice about a number of job offers. Levy feigned shock, asking why he hadn't considered joining Publicis. Did he think the group "shit" and unworthy of his consideration?

"I was young and naive and Maurice toyed with me," Naouri smiles. "It was terrible. I'm still ashamed. It never occurred to me that Publicis would have anything to offer an engineer, but we met again four days later to talk about things I could do."

In 1993, he became a founding partner of Publicis Consultants, the group's first attempt to bring some cohesion to the ad-hoc way it offered strategic advice. Bleustein-Blanchet and Levy had both become involved in mergers and acquisitions and crisis management. But Naouri says: "They were just doing it part-time. There was no structure."

With his political background, Naouri was a natural for a high-level corporate PR role and - according to one former Publicis executive - "begins to explain why he is where he is".

His success earned him the presidency of Publicis Conseil, the group's flagship ad agency in Paris and, later, the tougher challenge of heading the network's operations in the Nordics, Germany, Belgium and the Benelux countries.

"His time there was a problem for him," an insider says, and Naouri confesses how hard it was to bring direction to a collection of agencies brought together hastily through acquisition.

His defining period came in 2003 when, instead of hiring external consultants, Publicis set up Project Horizon, a team headed by Naouri and tasked with drawing up a strategic plan in the wake of the $3 billion acquisition of Bcom3, which brought Leo Burnett and the now dismembered D'Arcy network into the fold.

The Horizon plan was notable for committing the group to building its digital expertise - it currently accounts for 30 per cent of the group's revenue and is expected to rise to 50 per cent - and to extending its presence in emerging markets.

Far more controversial, though, has been the establishment of Re:Sources, the group's back-office finance, accounting, procurement and operations unit, with which Naouri is closely identified. "Not a single computer can be bought within Publicis without Naouri's approval," a group source claims.

But the anonymous e-mail writers claim that, rather than saving money, Re:Sources actually wastes it by forcing agencies to pay higher prices for such things as IT services than they would by using local suppliers.

Naouri insists none of this is true and that no single agency can achieve the savings available to a 40,000-strong group like Publicis. He puts the hostility down to entrepreneurial agency heads wanting to do their own thing.

Some onlookers suggest the internal quarrels over Re:Sources typify Naouri's modus operandi.

"The jury is still out on Re:Sources, although the idea makes a lot of sense and it is very much in line with the way Naouri operates," a Publicis manager explains. "He isn't interested in anything that doesn't add value.

"The fact is that he doesn't always do things that go down well with ad people. He'll question everything from a business, financial and logistical perspective, and you don't find that often enough in our industry. He really keeps you on your toes."

And Naouri acknowledges his forthright management style: "Am I demanding? Yes. Am I asking people to work beyond their limits? Yes. Am I looking for the best for Publicis? Yes. I do what I say and I say what I'll do."

Should Naouri make it to the top job, some believe he will need to beef up his senior management. Kevin Roberts, 62, the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide chief executive, and Jack Klues, 57, the managing partner at VivaKi, are both in the autumn of their careers.

His prospects are enhanced by the lack of internal challengers. The American David Kenny, the one-time Digitas boss, is said to have tired of the internal politics and is now the president of Akamai Technologies. It was a similar experience for the UK-born Pinder, who quit 13 months ago.

That leaves two possible rivals for Naouri, although both have drawbacks. One is Jean-Michel Etienne, the Publicis chief financial officer. He has been a major influence on the group's emergence as a global player, but a lack of client ties or network experience count against him.

The other is Arthur Sadoun, a new-business go-getter, whose role as chief executive of Publicis France has been extended, putting him in charge of Western Europe. However, he is handicapped by his youth - he is 41 years old - and his limited experience.

Of course, all this presupposes that Levy has a retirement date in mind. "What would he retire to?" a Publicis executive asks. "He doesn't have another life." The fact that Levy holds all the key client relationships, making it hard for anybody else to take them on, may also mean he will not be saying au revoir any time soon.

Plus, with Dentsu having just sold back most of its stake in Publicis and the group's cash flow healthy, there is speculation that Levy's grand finale could be a cash bid for Interpublic.

Meanwhile, Naouri recalls his time as an officer in the French Airborne Division to remind himself of what might be to come. Part of his job was to check his men's equipment before they jumped: "As I did so, their eyes were telling me 'Don't screw up'. The circumstances may be different now - but it's a responsibility I still carry."

Age: 52
Born: Algeria
Lives: Paris
Family: Married, with two daughters and one son
Remuneration package: EUR2,480,800
Educated: ecole Polytechnique, Paris. Graduated in 1979

1991: After national service as a paratrooper and a period in the oil industry working on deep-sea exploration, he becomes a cabinet advisor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the minister for industry and foreign trade. He oversees a number of key sectors, including France's chemical, pharmaceutical and steel industries, as well as supervising quality and environmental issues across all industries

1993: Joins Publicis Groupe as a founding partner of Publicis Consultants

2000: Appointed the president of Publicis Conseil, the Publicis flagship agency

2003: Named the regional chairman for Publicis agencies in Northern Europe and the country chairman of Publicis Germany

2004: Becomes the Publicis Groupe executive vice-president. Appointed to lead Project Horizon, a strategic plan devised as a result of a merger with Bcom3

2005: Responsibilities extended to include Publicis' Shared Service Centers as well as IT, procurement, real estate and insurance

2006: Appointed the executive vice-president, group operations

2007: Joins the Publicis P12 management board

2010: Appointed to lead Publicis Groupe operations in China and becomes its worldwide chief operating officer

2011: Named the executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide with responsibility for overseeing the network.