Advertising Week 2014

Maurice Levy Recalls His First Meeting With Martin Sorrell

And AOL's Tim Armstrong Dismisses Prospect of Merger With Yahoo

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Maurice Levy often pokes fun at Martin Sorrell, but during his Advertising Week talk with AOL Chairman-CEO Tim Armstrong, he told the story of the first time they met, long before the two men were rival holding company CEOs at Publicis Groupe and WPP.

Maurice Levy.
Maurice Levy. Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

It was 1980, Mr. Levy said. Mr. Sorrell, then group finance director at Saatchi & Saatchi, accompanied Maurice Saatchi to a Paris meeting with Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, Publicis' legendary founder and CEO for 60 years. The Saatchi side proposed that Saatchi and Publicis jointly buy two U.S. agencies, Compton and Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. Mr. Levy was dispatched to London to spend a day reviewing the possible deal with Mr. Sorrell and Maurice and Charles Saatchi.

"At the end of the day, Martin asked what I was going to recommend," Mr. Levy said. "I said I'll recommend we do not do the deal, because I have the feeling your 50% [stake] will always be bigger than ours. [Saatchi later did both deals on its own]. Maurice Saatchi and I became friends, and he even suggested we create an agency called Maurice & Maurice. From that day, I had a less great relationship with Martin."

Mr. Levy said he jokes about WPP's CEO "because Martin likes that and he'd be disappointed if I didn't do it."

Apart from entertaining the audience with anecdotes about Mr. Sorrell and occasional pithy French phrases—"After this, you will all want to get French lessons"—he talked about his priorities for his final two-and-a-half years as CEO.

He said the most important task is to prepare the management succession, and to bring up to speed Publicis' newly-enlarged management board, the Directoire+ named during last month's reorganization.

Post-Publicis, he'll have more time for a cause close to his heart, as the new chairman of the board of governors of the Peres Center for Peace, founded by former Israeli President Shimon Peres. "I want to spend time bringing together Palestinians and Israelis," he said.

As Messrs. Levy and Armstrong lobbed questions at each other, Mr. Levy asked whether AOL will merge with Yahoo, as Yahoo shareholder Starboard Value proposed in a letter to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer last week. Mr. Armstrong said his impression is that "AOL is a sideshow" to Yahoo and Starboard's dealings and said "I haven't given it much thought."

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