Maurice Lévy: The Napoleon of advertising

His office overlooks the Arc de Triomphe, and as the boss of global advertising behemoth Publicis - owners of Saatchi & Saatchi - Maurice Levy is something of a monument himself. Alex Benady probes behind the smooth facade

Monday 29 May 2006 00:00 BST

Maurice Lévy is not an especially religious man, but pride of place in his office overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris is given to a charred copy of a 17th-century Bible in Hebrew and French. Resting on the top page is a tortured lump of white metal, all that remains of its lead and silver cover.

"It was rescued from the office of Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the founder of our company, after a fire destroyed our offices in September 1972," explains Lévy. "I keep it as a mark of respect to him and as a symbol of continuity with the past."

As chief executive of Publicis, he is one of the most powerful players in world advertising and employs 39,000 people in 109 countries. His company owns four international advertising agency networks outright - Publicis, Leo Burnett and Fallon as well as media buying agencies Zenith Optimedia and Starcom and the only household name in British advertising, Saatchi & Saatchi. He also has a 49 per cent share in London-based BBH (formerly Bartle Bogle Hegarty), regarded by many as currently the best ad agency in the world.

The list of consumer brands his companies represent in the UK alone reads like a roll call of global capitalism. McDonald's, Kellogg's, Heinz, Ariel, Hewlett Packard, Toyota, Audi, Renault, Skoda, General Motors, Samsung, Sony, Asda, MFI, the Post Office, the Army, British Airways, Nestlé, Cadbury, Carlsberg, and Coca-Cola, to name just a few.

So the brilliant ad for Sony with hundreds of thousands of balls bouncing down a hill in San Francisco is one of his. Likewise the Thierry Henry va-va-voom campaign for Renault, the hideous Asda commercials and the army recruitment films were all created by his agencies.

Lévy has other reasons to remember that fire because in the autumn of 1972 he was just a computer programmer who had been at Publicis for less than a year. As the blaze took hold he risked his life to rush back into his office and save the company's computer records.

It was a heroic act that showed an almost incomprehensible commitment to his employer. It marked him out as a future successor to Bleustein, as a man who would risk everything for the company and first demonstrated his talent for dramatic intervention at moments of crisis that would subsequently transform Publicis from a regional advertising agency into a global communications powerhouse.

Lévy is currently the "Monsieur Big" of world advertising. He has what Americans call "trajectory". Over the past six years, revenues at troubled rival Interpublic Group have grown by just a tenth. At Omnicom and WPP (owned by Lévy's great adversary Sir Martin Sorrell), they have doubled. But Publicis has grown fourfold. Lévy, who in France enjoys a standing far higher than Sorrell has in the UK, presides over a business empire with billings of $39bn and annual revenues of €4.1bn.

Tanned, trim and very, very, suave, Lévy at 63 comes across as the archetypal smooth Frenchman from central casting. He has none of the self-important bluster you get with some grandees or the fake sincerity of others. With his honeyed French accent, you feel he could break into a chorus of "thank 'eaven for leetle girls" at any moment.

But then today is a good day to meet him. It is spring in Paris. The blossom is out; the girls on the Champs-Elysées downstairs are wearing summer dresses and, as chance would have it, Lévy has just expanded his empire with the acquisition of the largest independent advertising agency in Belgium.

A couple of weeks earlier he bought a large Chinese marketing agency. The week before that he gained control of an important US-owned financial communications firm. It seems reasonable to wonder whether perhaps he is the first Frenchman since Napoleon to have "world domination" on his to-do list.

It's a question he firmly but charmingly boots into touch. "We do not share the Anglo-Saxon obsession with size," he says with a twinkle and only the slightest of smirks. "Size has always been a constraint rather than an ambition. I have always looked at size as a ticket of entry. We need global reach. We need to be in the top tier to be in the game. But the biggest? No. Just the best."

It's not just the Anglo-Saxon obsession with size that Lévy disputes. Although Publicis Groupe has dozens of global clients, many of them American and British, Lévy claims that Publicis offers a very different, very French take on global business, from its major rivals. That point of view is best summed up in the company tag line, "Vive la différence". This may sound like empty advertising guff to the cynical observer, but Lévy says it sums up a genuine philosophy.

It comes from the experience of being French in an Anglo-Saxon world, he says. "You know how protective we (French) are about our culture. We have genuine respect for other cultures because of that. We didn't want to be a Hilton hotel that makes the same thing everywhere. We wanted to be part of the Relais & Chateaux which differs according to owner and place."

It is a pitch that plays well all over the world when he goes shopping for agencies. "When we approached the agencies with this proposal they were very happy to sell," he says.

And it's an approach that applies equally to the output of his agencies. "Roots are important, a determining factor. Each of our networks is very different. One is American, based in the US with a huge market, and huge corporations. One is British with this creative reputation and one French which is looked at as something exotic."

"Exotic" may be interesting; it may be sexy, but is it going to shift crates of product? For all his pride in the Frenchness of his company, Lévy admits that it is a real handicap in the world of business: the image and culture of France are not very positively viewed by the global business community, he concedes.

"US corporations rely very much on systems, procedures and processes to make sure what is good can be repeated. The British are more pragmatic. The French are more intellectual and conceptual. So they try to find a solution that has to be grounded not only in a good business solution but something intellectually - an edifice of logic and aesthetic they can be proud of.

"All the big client firms are Anglo-Saxon, German and Japanese. It is very, rare to see a French one - perhaps Total or L'Oréal and a few others. What's more, advertising and marketing are considered as purely Anglo-Saxon skills. When you are Latin they believe you can be creative, but they don't believe you can be rigorous or that you can bring something to the party beyond your own market."

This is particularly true of French creative work, which is often viewed as pretentious and on occasion bewilderingly obscene by outsiders. "The British are very much dominated by sense of humour but at the same time you find the demonstration of the product," says Lévy. "The Americans are very much head on - product benefit, matter-of-fact rationalisation. The French play down the rational and play up the emotional. They will place a lot of emphasis on aesthetic aspects. The ads have to be beautiful and sensual. Sometimes they move from sensuality to sexuality."

This, he says, explains the French phenomenon of "porno chic" in advertising which has seen even mundane products promoted in a way that would cause all but the most sexist Englishman to choke on his pint. "Je la lie, je la fouette et elle passa à la casserole" ran the copy for the Babette brand of crème fraîche a couple of years ago (not one of his). Literally it translates as "I mix it, whip it and pop it in the pan". Colloquially, however, it can be read as "I tie her up, whip her and then give her one".

"It (porno chic) is now a little bit faded. Perhaps because we are all becoming older," he laughs. Not because it is inappropriate and offensive, you will note. If he were English or American he would know better than to make such jokes. Anglo-Saxon executives have had to resign for less.

Being French may be a help if you are selling women's underwear or wine. But if you happen to be flogging marketing services, it's a real handicap. "It takes a lot of energy to convince US and British corporations that a French agency can be creative and can service them in the market."

Like many businessmen Lévy seems genuinely baffled that anyone would find his personal life intriguing. "This is the bit I hate in interviews. I really don't believe it is interesting," he says.

But then he reveals that for all his pride in the French way, his parents were not French at all but Spanish and that he was born not in France but in the unlikely setting of the provincial Moroccan town of Oudja, close to the border with Algeria.

"My father was a leftist professor of philosophy in Spain. Politically he was somewhere between an anarchist and a communist. He fought the fascists, was caught and condemned to death. But he escaped to Perpignan (in south-west France) where he was making a new life with my mother when France was invaded by the Germans."

It was not a great time to be a left-wing Jewish intellectual in France, so they fled again. "The only place he could go was Morocco because the king of Morocco was protecting the Jews," he explains. Lévy was subsequently educated in Morocco, France and "a little bit in the US". His slightly rootless upbringing means he feels at home everywhere. But he says his heart is where his family is and his family (three sons and six grandchildren) is in Paris. And that is all he will reveal about himself. "Back to business," he says, a steely note creeping into the voice of the hitherto carefree boulevardier.

Many markets across the world these days are dominated by a handful of big players which makes it all but impossible for competitors to muscle in on the big time. Lévy forecast as long as 20 years ago that advertising would be no exception.

The push to join the top tier in advertising has been his obsession ever since he took over from Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet in 1987 to become Publicis' second CEO in 80 years. "It was clear even then that the world of business would go global and that we would have no future unless we did too," he says.

The insight was to turn him into a ruthless if amiable predator. In the late 1980s Lévy embarked on a furious shopping spree which has never really stopped. In his first 10 years at the helm Publicis acquired more than 60 agencies, mostly in Europe, in an attempt to beef up its operations.

But it was not until 2000 that Publicis became a serious global player with the audacious acquisition of the jewel in the crown of British advertising, Saatchi & Saatchi. "I knew I absolutely needed a second network if I wanted to grow and Saatchi & Saatchi was the best brand in the advertising world," says Lévy.

He was also aware that at the time Saatchi & Saatchi was vulnerable and very troubled. The Saatchi brothers had been ousted five years previously; major clients had been lost and the agency was in danger of imploding. "I had already tried to buy them in 1995 after the brothers left but I was rejected," admits Lévy.

In fact Lévy and Maurice Saatchi were old friends - Lévy's offer was partly a gesture of support. The two subsequently joked about the possibility of setting up an agency called Maurice and Maurice, says Lévy.

In 2000 he sensed his moment had finally come. Lévy pounced, acquired Saatchi for £1.3bn in shares (in other words, he did not part with a penny in cash) and for a second time rescued an agency in trouble - while boosting his own position.

It was to be another four years before Publicis would really enter the top tier. "If we stayed in the second tier I felt that we would become soon second class, so we had to make a move. There were two options: Grey and Leo Burnett, The best to buy was Leo Burnett. I approached them in early 2001. They declined even to have a conversation, " says Lévy.

However, September 11 changed everything. Lévy was one of the first to go to the US after the planes were flying again. "I remember the plane was empty. A 747 with only 20 people," he recalls. Many meetings and €4.8bn later, the deal was done.

Lévy had achieved his ambition of taking Publicis into the premier league of world advertising. Yet again he intervened in a troubled agency and had come up smelling of roses.

"So you intervened when you knew they were psychologically weak?" I suggest. Lévy just takes it in his stride. "No, not when they were psychologically weak, when they were psychologically open," he counters with another twinkle.

Now that he has achieved his aim of taking Publicis into the top tier, he realises that his company is more likely to be threatened by failure to keep up with the changing consumer than by rival operators. Size alone will not protect it. Flexibility and willingness to absorb new ideas at an accelerating rate will be the keys to future success, he says.

"Consumers do not want only to be given an astonishingly wide-ranging choice. They want that choice to be renewed at intervals that are always shorter. This is the reason why we have to redefine our very notion of time.

"What we have to deal with is not only change, but an acceleration of change itself. Not only transformations, but the transformation of transformations: it will be a real challenge to make fidelity out of inconstancy," he says, suddenly sounding like that rare creature (in the UK at least), a businessman who is also an intellectual.

According to Lévy, the accelerating rate of change is as true of media as it is of consumer preferences. "Until recently, transformation in the media was progressive, and it was possible for advertisers to follow it smoothly. But now, the pace is different: since media are meant to represent the world, the representation of the world moves faster than the world itself. We no longer live in a time of mediation; we have entered an era of immediacy."

That doesn't mean television is dead, just that all campaigns needs a digital element these days. Perhaps surprisingly his view is that the prime digital medium will not be the internet as many predict, but the mobile phone. "In a couple of years, most of the information you share, most of the advertising you read, most of the messages you send, most of the music you listen to will transit through your cell phone," he states confidently.

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