Publicis Buys Extra Time for Naming Maurice Levy Successor

What's Behind the Board's Decision to Raise its Retirement Age to 75

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Publicis Groupe looks to be delaying finding a successor to Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy. This week's annual meeting bought itself some extra time by raising the age limit for board members by five years, to 75.

Maurice Levy
Maurice Levy Credit: Christophe Bertolin

Mr. Levy will turn 70 on Feb. 18, 2012, but has agreed to stay on at the French communications group -- owner of ad agencies Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis and media companies Starcom MediaVest and ZenithOptimedia -- until his successor is formally identified.

Mr. Levy's heir apparent is Jean-Yves Naouri, who was named executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide in March 2011 as part of his march to the top. At that point, then-chief operating officer of Publicis Worldwide, Richard Pinder, left. Mr. Naouri's appointment was seen by many as a move to bring the agency back under French control in advance of the succession from Mr. Levy.

Mr. Naouri was previously chief operating officer of Publicis Groupe . By letting him run Publicis Worldwide -- the group's original agency and the one closest to Mr. Levy's own heart -- Mr. Levy is giving Mr. Naouri the opportunity to prove himself a worthy heir. However, the word among Publicis executives is that Mr. Naouri is "no adman," and perhaps not as popular a boss as Mr. Levy, because he hasn't run a big agency before and doesn't have the deep contacts that most agency heads do.

Prior to joining Publicis Groupe as a founder of Publicis Consultants in 1993, Mr. Naouri worked for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced ex-International Monetary Fund boss who is under house arrest in New York on charges of assaulting a hotel maid. As government minister for industry and foreign trade, Mr. Strauss-Kahn employed Mr. Naouri as a cabinet adviser between 1991 and 1993. They are known to be close friends, though it's unlikely that the association would tarnish Mr. Naouri's professional reputation.

The third character in the story -- alongside Messrs. Levy and Naouri -- is Elisabeth Badinter, the daughter of Publicis founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet. She also chairs Publicis Groupe 's supervisory board as well as being a respected philosopher, academic and feminist.

It is rumoured that Ms. Badinter strongly favors Mr. Levy staying on a few more years while Mr. Naouri proves he is the right candidate to inherit her own father's crown.

Mr. Levy probably doesn't mind. Observers close to the company point out that Publicis is Mr. Levy's life's work -- he arrived in 1971 as a young IT director, and has been chairman and CEO since 1987.

Mr. Levy's predecessor, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, worked until he was 80, but Mr. Levy, who was originally scheduled to retire at the end of this year, is unlikely to stay quite that long.

A press release from Publicis Groupe following the annual meeting said that , by staying on, Mr. Levy would be able to "lead the group through the transformation of the communications industry, particularly the rapid expansion of digital communications and emerging markets. He will also be able to oversee the managerial succession."

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