In 1926, 20-year-old Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet founded Publicis in a working-class neighborhood of Paris. Publicis' first clients were companies owned by Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet's relatives and friends: Levitan Furniture, Andre Shoes and Brunswick Furs.
In the 1930s, Havas, the country's largest ad agency, dominated the print media in France, so Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet pursued radio as a source of advertising accounts. He traveled the French countryside approaching provincial stations and offering them exclusive contracts to book their advertising space in return for guaranteeing them yearly revenue.
With increased advertising revenue, Publicis moved to a more sophisticated office and by 1935 purchased its own radio station, which it renamed Radio-Cité. Radio-Cité became one of Paris' most popular radio stations with live entertainers such as Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker. Radio-Cité popularized radio game shows and revolutionized French radio news by offering hourly news briefs. By the late 1930s, Radio-Cité had the largest advertising revenues of any French radio station, with Publicis handling most of the accounts.
Publicis turned to cinema advertising in the mid-1930s, producing many advertising shorts. In addition, Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet established a subsidiary that managed the distribution of cinema advertising. By the onset of World War II, Publicis had exclusive distribution rights to more than half of France's movie houses.
Despite Publicis' success in radio and cinema (media that accounted for just 5% of total French advertising spending), Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet realized that to compete with Havas, which handled ad spending 20 times that of Publicis, his company had to increase its presence in print. As a result, Publicis launched Régie-Presse in 1938.
French advertising agencies usually did not approach a newspaper or magazine directly to buy advertising space but instead turned to an intermediary, a régie, to arrange the purchase of space for their clients. The régie then received a commission for service on finding the space. Havas dominated this space-purchasing niche as well, so Publicis found its initial entry in this arena hard going.
Before it could establish itself in that new business, the Germans took control of France in 1940, and under pressure from the Nazi-controlled Vichy government, Publicis closed its doors. The agency remained shuttered until 1946.
With nationalization of French radio broadcasting following the war, Publicis could no longer rely on radio advertising as its major revenue source. Accordingly, it revived Régie-Presse to broker advertising space. While Publicis had little to work with in ravaged, postwar France, Havas also was in a state of disorder. At the time, the French state owned an 80% stake in Havas; in an effort to promote recovery, the government stripped the company of its news and information agency, further hobbling the agency.
By 1953, Régie-Presse had expanded enough to broker space for France-Soir, France's largest newspaper, and Nous Deux, its largest weekly magazine, as well as several others.
Many of Publicis' old clients returned to the agency in the postwar years and, in 1947, the agency landed its first overseas client, Colgate-Palmolive Co. With the cachet of a large multinational marketer as a client, Publicis attracted other French and international enterprises, among them Nestlé in 1952; Shell Oil Co. in 1954; and Renault in 1962. Publicis even opened an office in New York in the late 1950s, although its billings were small and limited mostly to a few French companies that marketed in the U.S.
Among Publicis' well-remembered campaigns from the 1960s was a 1964 effort for Boursin cheese with the slogan, "Du pain, du vin et du Boursin" ("Some bread, some wine and some Boursin"). Sales of the cheese increased tenfold over the next five years, and in 1968, Publicis produced the first TV commercial broadcast in France: a spot for Boursin.
The agency, which had established France's first market research department in 1948, sought other sources of revenue in the early 1960s, creating two more internal departments. The first, Information Industrielle, encouraged marketers to place institutional advertisements, something French companies rarely did. The second, Jeunesse-informations ("Youth Information"), specialized in the placement of advertisements targeting French youth. Its establishment coincided with the peak of France's postwar baby boom. Both departments also created ad campaigns.
Publicis worked for the French government as well, handling a government bond issue in 1952 ("You can bring a needed and decisive contribution to national recovery") that was the most successful issue of its kind up to that time. Publicis also helped reduce an oversupply of French beef in 1961 by stimulating consumption with its "Suivez le boeuf" ("Follow the beef") campaign. The following year, Publicis surpassed Havas to become France's largest advertising agency, a title it held for four years.
In 1972, the agency suffered a severe setback when a fire completely gutted the agency's Paris office. The potentially crippling blow was overcome by cooperation from Publicis' largest clients (Renault, Nestlé and Colgate-Palmolive), which housed the agency's employees until Publicis could build new headquarters. Even two competitors, Elvinger and Synergie, provided office space for the agency. (By 1973, Publicis was reinstalled in its Champs-Elysées office adjacent to the Arc de Triomphe.)
At the same time, Publicis began to focus on foreign markets. To raise the cash necessary for such acquisitions, Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet sold 20% of his stake in the agency (which had been solely owned by the Bleustein-Blanchet family) on the Paris Bourse. With new resources, Publicis purchased the Dutch advertising agency Intermarco (which handled Philips Electronics) and the Swiss agency Farner, merging them to form Intermarco-Farner.
In terms of worldwide billings, Publicis ranked No. 26 and Intermarco-Farner, No. 33; combined billings earned Publicis a place among the world's top 20 ad agencies. Through Intermarco-Farner, Publicis began to open offices in all Western European countries throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. But Publicis still had its eyes on the tough-to-crack U.S. market.
Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet retired in 1988 after leading the agency for more than 60 years. His successor, Maurice Lévy, was also eager to pursue further expansion. In 1988, Mr. Lévy reached an agreement with the American agency Foote, Cone & Belding under which the two received a 20% stake in the other. Each agency was strong on its home continent but weak abroad, and they had no conflicting accounts.
The alliance soon soured, however; Publicis purchased the French agency Feldman, Calleux & Associés in 1993. FCA's American subsidiary, Bloom-FCA!, competed with FCB, which complained to Publicis. Meanwhile, FCB was in the process of a reorganization that created the holding company True North Communications. In 1997, against Publicis' wishes, True North acquired Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt. That reorganization diluted Publicis' holdings in FCB to 11%, and Publicis responded with a hostile takeover bid for True North in late 1997, which failed.
By 1998, the two agencies were in a process of divorce. Despite the sour experience with FCB, Publicis felt pressure to seek further globalization, but through acquisition rather than merger. Under Mr. Lévy, Publicis became a true multinational force, acquiring offices in more than 76 countries in Asia and North and South America.
At the end of the decade, Publicis succeeded in making important acquisitions in the U.S., purchasing Hal Riney & Partners and the Evans Group in 1998 and Frankel & Co. and Fallon McElligott in 2000. Later in 2000, Publicis acquired London-based Saatchi & Saatchi for $1.7 billion in stock.
In March 2002, Publicis Groupe (Groupe was added to the agency's name in 2000) and Bcom3 Group agreed to merge, forming the world's No. 4 communications group. The companies also announced the creation of a long-term partnership between Dentsu, Japan's largest ad agency, and Publicis.
In May 2003, Publicis Groupe's MediaVest won the $137 million media-buying account of DirecTv. MediaVest Group, part of Starcom MediaVest Group also picked up the vaunted Coca-Cola media buying and planning business.
Throughout 2003, the holding company moved from strength to strength, ending the year as the world’s fourth largest with revenue of $4.4 billion, an increase of 7.3% from 2002. In 2004, the company continued to look for acquisitions to bulk up its marketing services offering.