The World: Practicing the art of global creative diplomacy

Despite the long hours, Olivier Altmann is revelling in his task of turning Publicis into a global creative titan.

Two years into his tenure as the Publicis network's global creative catalyst, Olivier Altmann must feel like he's being pulled every which way.

By his boss, Maurice Levy, who looks to him to lead by example; by his creative peers from around the world, who expect him to be their collective mouthpiece; and by the network's flagship Paris agency, where he is expected to build a creative reputation second to none.

Should his diplomatic skills succeed in raising creative standards across the world, Altmann would, according to Levy, be a strong contender should the network decide to make the move from a collegiate system of creative quality control to the appointment of a global creative director in the truest sense. So no pressure then.

It's no surprise the lights in his office on the Champs Elysees rarely go out before midnight, and that quality time with his three young sons is confined to weekends.

It was in January 2006 that Altmann's nocturnal schedule began to intensify when his role as the creative chief of Publicis Conseil was extended after Dave Droga stepped down as the network's chief creative officer.

The appointment of the Cannes Grand Prix-winning former creative chief of Saatchi & Saatchi in London was intended to send out a very important message. For years, Publicis' main raison d'etre beyond its home market was to service France-based international advertisers, for whom creative quality was of secondary importance.

Droga's arrival, along with his formidable creative reputation, signalled all that was to change.

Droga put reforms in place, but, ultimately, missed the challenge of day-to-day ad-making. Altmann, 43, previously little known beyond the French ad scene, must now finish what Droga started.

"As a network, we're the most creative we've ever been, but we're still not good enough," Richard Pinder, the Publicis chief operating officer, says.

As the chairman of the Publicis worldwide creative board, it falls to Altmann to ensure the network's multicultural philosophy is mirrored in a creative output whose quality isn't only consistently high, but also springs from an intimate knowledge of local markets.

"Our aim is a flexible creative style that's more reflective of our clients than of the network," Levy says. "We want to be recognised as the agency that does the best work in the world for advertisers such as Renault, L'Oreal, Orange and Nestle."

This is a tricky assignment. For one thing, Altmann is not the global creative director. "Instead of having one person who can change everything, we're more a community of creative directors," he explains. "I'm not supposed to be the star of the show. And I don't have a magic wand."

For another, he's devoting just 20 per cent of his working time to the global job. The rest is spent running the 110-strong creative department at Publicis Conseil.

It is clear that what happens at Conseil will determine Altmann's future. While it's vital for Publicis offices in the UK, the US and Australia to be firing on all cylinders, national pride dictates that the Paris agency should establish itself as the creative benchmark against which all other network shops will measure themselves. "If the central agency isn't delivering, that's not a good sign for the rest of the network," he argues. "So there's more pressure to do good work."

"Olivier's job is to draw people together and tell them that standards matter," Pinder says.

If Altmann is feeling the strain, it certainly isn't showing. A career that began 20 years ago as a copywriter at FCB Paris seems to have been merely the preparation for higher office. Indeed, he appears to have made a comfortable jump from BDDP & Fils, the creative hotshop he helped found ten years ago, to the most coveted creative job in France.

The only bump along the way seems to have been a deteriorating relationship with Christophe Lambert, then the Conseil president and the man who recruited him.

Their fraught partnership ended in October 2006, when Lambert quit amid much acrimony to set up shop with the creatives Frederic Raillard and Farid Mokart. They had been hired less than 18 months earlier to establish the Publicis-backed hotshop Marcel.

"Christophe would invariably have an opinion on the work - but I wasn't used to working like that," Altmann recalls. "It wasn't that he didn't have good creative judgment - a majority of the time he did - but it meant that we were operating with two creative directors. The final outcome was probably best for everybody."

Those who know Altmann put his success down to a combination of flair and friendly persuasion. "Olivier is one of those creatives who doesn't have to be a pain in the arse to be effective," an associate comments.

Pinder says: "Anybody who works with him finds him thoughtful, interesting and talented."

For his part, Levy professes pleasure at the way Altmann is approaching his role and his success as a magnet for talent.

"He's genuinely nice, which is pretty rare in our industry," Levy says. "But he's also a very good creative who makes people feel good about themselves, and who gets results without having to yell."

Whether Altmann moves from quiet cajoler to benevolent dictator is a moot point. For the moment, he's content to be the former. "Publicis is a big network with the clients to match," he observes. "But those clients aren't easy to move, and the pace can't be forced. It's a step-by-step process. But winning a Euro-best Grand Prix the year I joined was a good sign for the future."