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Havas Chief Talks Outsize Game, Takes on Ad Giants

At 44, the Tweeting, Facebooking David Jones Is the Youngest Holding Company CEO -- and Sees Big Future

By Published on . 1

It's after sundown in the South of France, and young creatives have gathered on the rooftop of the 1835 White Palm Hotel. After a long day studded with meetings, a disheveled David Jones has not bothered to change out of his signature look -- a navy-blue pinstripe suit -- before bounding off the elevator and into the center of the party.

His left hand jabs the air, his right hand cups a beverage, and his feet stomp to the music of a live band. Mr. Jones scans the terrace for acquaintances. He notices a reporter standing nearby, and distractedly waves hello before trying to find the beat again.

David Jones: The new CEO is not content to only be a manager. 'I'm a practitioner.'
David Jones: The new CEO is not content to only be a manager. 'I'm a practitioner.' Credit: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

In other words: It was his time to dance, and he really didn't care who was watching.

That was Mr. Jones at last year's Cannes adfest, and, from what his employees say, he's not dramatically different at Euro RSCG holiday parties. It's hardly what you'd call typical behavior for the man in charge of a top 10 advertising holding company, but that's just the point. When 44-year-old Mr. Jones was made CEO of Paris-based Havas last week, it marked the start of a new generation of control in the ad business.

His boss, Vincent Bollore, the chairman of Havas who wields a 35% stake in the company, said as much in anointing Mr. Jones and casting aside Fernando Rodes Vila -- a Spaniard whose father Leopoldo founded one of Havas' operating units, MPG.

"You're the first of the new generation of holding-company heads, and in the next few years, you will watch all of them retire," Mr. Jones said he was told by his boss.

It's more than age that sets Mr. Jones apart from the men who run the far-larger firms in Havas' competitive set -- WPP, Omnicom Group, Publicis Groupe and Interpublic Group of Cos. Known to his friends as "DJ" or "Jonesy," he's an Englishman, in New York, running a French company. He's as concerned with his personal brand as he is with his client's brands and determined not to become a figurehead. And at a company that's got much of its growth ahead of it, he still has a lot left to prove.

Compared to his peers, Mr. Jones is active in social media. He clearly manages his own Twitter and Facebook accounts, regularly sprinkling them with airport check-ins and missives from business bashes such as Davos and Ted. But recent posts also included a hashtag with a splash of character (#fuckIhatetraveling); more than a little celebrity worship ("sitting 5 seats down from Cameron Diaz at Ted -- wish she'd stop staring at me:"); and a lovely photo of Bondi Beach.

Where executives in the running for a successorship at an ad holding company typically wait in a holding position for years, Mr. Jones has quickly catapulted to the top of Havas. It's a curious ascent, too, because if you know a bit about French business culture, then you probably also know how unusual it is for anyone but a Frenchman to oversee a French-owned company.

But Mr. Bollore isn't bothered by the fact Mr. Jones is a Brit, and, in fact, some say his background may have helped him get tapped to turn around Havas' biggest operating unit, Euro RSCG, back in 2005.

While Mr. Jones grew up in northern England and studied business in Germany before launching a career in advertising, he's managed to immerse himself in French culture -- his wife of 15 years, Karine, is French and he speaks the language, one of three in which Mr. Jones is fluent.

"He is very charming," said one executive who knows him. "When he's involved in a piece of business, things go well. Creative really is important to him. He recognizes it's about making really great work and he always talks about the CBI -- the creative business idea -- that moves the client business. He does command respect internally, and that's partly because he's very honest, and that gets him a lot of points."

A few years ago, Mr. Jones told a European newspaper that people who excel in the media and advertising fields share the same three traits. "Short attention spans, highly curious minds and doing all the work for their exams the night before. ... Given that I was born with that make-up, it seemed an obvious choice."

He spent his early years hopping around shops in Europe such as JWT, Paris; Lowe, London; and Abbott Mead Vickers in London, where he worked with Andrew Robertson, now the CEO of Omnicom's BBDO. The turning point came in 1998, when Mr. Jones was hired to run Euro RSCG's Sydney office, where he successfully integrated the shop's traditional and digital operations. In 2002, he moved back to London to run Euro's Reckitt Benckiser account, and in 2004 moved to New York to turn around that office.

In the year that followed, Euro, New York, reeled in between $600 million and $700 million in billings from Charles Schwab, Kraft, Exxon and Jaguar. After Mr. Bollore came aboard at Havas in 2005, he made Mr. Jones the youngest global CEO of an ad agency network at age 39; he was leading over 10,000 staffers in some 75 countries.

Despite last week's promotion to CEO of Havas, Mr. Jones isn't planning to relinquish his post as global CEO of Euro RSCG, which accounts for some 50% of the company's revenue.

"I don't want to step out and just become a manager," Mr. Jones said last week. "I'm a practitioner."

But remaining the CEO of Euro means he'll have the added challenge of making sure he's not playing favorites among Havas' other two agency children, Arnold and MPG. "As long as I can demonstrate complete objectivity, there is no problem."

Mr. Jones is also being permitted to run Havas from New York, where he lives with his family, a brood that is growing at the same pace as the Beckhams. He and his wife have three children -- Alphonse, Agathe and Auguste, all under the age of 7; later this year, they will welcome a fourth.

His stateside location and the fact his boss is the one with majority ownership sets him apart from Messrs. Sorrell, Wren, Roth and Levy. But he also doesn't have to deal with institutional investors or regular earnings calls, could likely get away with not having a comparable level of financial acumen and won't face the same level of scrutiny unless he courts it -- which he might, as he's not as averse to the media as the others.

Former colleagues and fellow ad execs say he has a blend of charisma and ego. Said an ad exec who knows Mr. Jones: "It bothers him that people always talk about the 'Big Four' ... he has a skewed view of his importance in the industry and has always seen himself on the same level as the Sir Martins."

Mr. Jones is decidedly of the view that being big isn't what matters to clients anymore, and, observing a panel of his rivals at the 4A's industry conference last week, he found it ironic that all cited Wieden & Kennedy as an agency they admire. "It's funny that a bunch of guys saying size is important picked a smaller agency as the best."

Still, he's not content with Havas staying the size it is now. In five years the company has gone from some 750 million euros in debt to having the same amount of cash on hand. And Mr. Jones plans to spend it.

"We've completely turned around the business and addressed the financial structure and we're ready to attack the next phase, which is how we spend this 750 million on acquisitions, and grow and take the company to the next level," Mr. Jones said. "The last five years were on defense, and the next five-year period will be on offense." The biggest challenge will be whether or not Mr. Jones spends Havas' money wisely.

Currently, Havas is the seventh-largest holding company, according to Ad Age's Datacenter, and by some distance. Were the long-rumored merger of Havas and No. 6 holding company Aegis, in which Mr. Bollore has a stake, to happen, it could overtake Dentsu to become No. 5. But for all the talk over the years, that deal now seems unlikely to materialize. Aegis' stock price is climbing and Havas is setting its sights elsewhere.

Said Mr. Jones on the topic of the long-rumored deal: "Five years ago [Mr. Bollore] believed he needed to do Aegis in order to strengthen Havas. ... I think he clearly believes today he no longer needs to do it, but he's the person to ask about Aegis because it's Vincent's stake, not Havas' stake."

Instead, Havas this year has begun making investments in startup companies like creative shop Camp & King and digital agency Socialistic. Bigger ones are on the horizon. "Large acquisitions are completely on the table," said Mr. Jones. "We obviously have the funds to make substantial acquisitions," he said, noting the holding company needs to bolster its presence in Asia, will continue growing its health-care business, and invest further in digital.

"We don't want to create a giant digital silo," Mr. Jones said. "If you look at the category today, you have big agencies with their big digital silos, for example DDB and Tribal DDB ... or you have a giant digital silo in its own right like AKQA."

There are other challenges too, like getting more involved in the media side of the business to help the ailing MPG, and hanging on to global Euro RSCG clients. It has lost chunks of Nestle business, and has entirely lost the global Jaguar business, while other key accounts like Heineken have seen marketer churn.

Mr. Jones calls the Jaguar loss an emotional one, not a financial one, and says marketers change regularly and it's the agency's responsibility to keep them happy.

Those concerns aren't big enough to take him away from the various philanthropic causes he's involved in, such as One Young World, a group that wants to be the voice of young people under 25 around the world on global issues like health and education, and his work with Kofi Annan and the Campaign for Climate Justice.

The question now is whether Mr. Jones, accustomed to ascending quickly within the company, can wait for more than a decade before his next promotion. Mr. Bollore is slated to retire in 2022, on the 200th anniversary of the family business that is Bollore Group, and last year told Ad Age he is planning a "fiesta" in honor of the occasion.

"We will start the third century and it will be the seventh generation," he said.

If Mr. Jones can manage to hang on another decade, he'll likely dance at that party. Whether he'll dance right into Mr. Bollore's seat remains to be seen.

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