For Bollore Group Chief, Industry Intrigue, Family Saga Drive Power Moves

In a Candid Interview, Vincent Bollore Talks State of Adland, Future of Havas

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- French industrialist and billionaire Vincent Bollore, chairman of family-controlled Bollore Group, has been riling the ad industry since buying a controlling stake in Havas five years ago in a boardroom coup and becoming Aegis Group's biggest shareholder shortly after that.

A sometime corporate raider turned long-term investor, Mr. Bollore has pushed Havas to restructure and diversify. He flirted with a full bid for Aegis, and is in almost daily contact with Euro RSCG's global CEO, David Jones. (Aegis and Havas are No. 6 and No. 7 in Ad Age's ranking of the world's top 50 agency companies.) His advertising and media interests, which also include TV, radio and newspaper businesses, are a tiny fraction of Bollore Group's almost $8 billion a year in revenue. But Mr. Bollore, 58, a personal friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, often finds the communications industry more intriguing than the group's ship-building, paper and energy activities.

Mr. Bollore spoke to Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen this summer about everything from making electric cars to the future of Havas during one of his occasional brief forays, sometimes on one of his own boats, to the Cannes Lion ad festival.

Vincent Bollore
Vincent Bollore Credit: Martin Bureau
Ad Age: Two years ago, you were here talking about an electric car. Are you still in the electric-car business?

Mr. Bollore: Of course. We have in the last two years spent maybe half a billion euros, which is $700 million. We have built two factories, one in Montreal and one in the west of France, with a capacity [to make] 30,000 big batteries for big cars or 60,000 normal-size batteries for normal cars. And we have developed a car [pre-prototype], which, if we obtain certification, will be delivered by end of the summer.

Ad Age: What's the name of it?

Mr. Bollore: The car is a blue car, we have kept the name.

Ad Age: It's just called "Blue Car"?

Mr. Bollore: "BlueCar" -- it's a very fantastic design, and it's produced in Torino, with our battery. Besides that, we are making a bus ... the first one will be delivered in November. So it's a reality.

Ad Age: Is this a sort of personal passion of yours, green tech?

Mr. Bollore: No, it's because for the last 30 years we are No. 1 in the world for capacitors, which are the small components for storing electricity. We have 40% to 50% of the worldwide market of capacitors, which is a small quantity of energy. Then we [moved] to the supercapacitor, which is a more important quantity of energy, and the last goal for us, the last target , was the battery, because it's a big quantity of energy and now everybody is fighting to show that he has discovered something. So 15 years ago when we started, we were absolutely scared because we were alone in believing in the electric car. And now, we are still scared because everybody wants to produce batteries and electric cars.

Ad Age: So for you, this is a business reason, not necessarily a personal passion?

Mr. Bollore: Oh, no, no, it's not a passion. I have no passion in my work except to create and develop [Bollore] Group, of which I am the sixth generation. It's a fantastic story to have six generations before you, 188 years, it's like a saga. ... I love this story and my passion is that -- not the car, the advertising or the oil business -- it's the company in general.

Ad Age: Do you still feel like the advertising business is a good place to be?

Mr. Bollore: Oh, definitely. All is changing in this business. And we are the newcomers. ... Before my arrival, some financial investments were not well controlled, [and that] made Havas an outsider. But now, we are back. We are making fantastic earnings and we have the best, talented man at the head of the group.

Ad Age: Do you think you can compete with the bigger holding companies?

Mr. Bollore: Of course, easy. The story is starting for us. We have the best financial structure on the market, we have cash in hand, we have talented people and we [aren't tied to] quarterly earnings, which means we can innovate. For instance, Digital Inside, which is an idea of David [Jones, CEO of Havas], is something very clever. Instead of making an acquisition [which becomes] a very expensive and separate company, he has made [digital] the heart of the company.

Ad Age: Do you envision doing big moves?

Mr. Bollore: I will make a lot of moves, but of course we can't say in advance. But we can be very quick and very patient. We can be very quick because we don't have a hundred directors, a hundred committees to convince before to make a move.

Ad Age: Who do you have to convince?

Mr. Bollore: Nobody.

Ad Age: You're competing against much larger holding companies, and you've referenced some of their strategies for going digital, which has been very acquisition-heavy.

Mr. Bollore: Yes, I love to copy. And to see what they are doing.

Ad Age: You love to copy? So what do you think of WPP and its strategy?

Mr. Bollore: Martin Sorrell is a wise, clever, very successful guy. He's No. 1 in the world. So, yes, he's a model.

Ad Age: And what about Publicis?

Mr. Bollore: Maurice Levy is quite good, too.

Ad Age: Well, you're going to be very politically correct, aren't you? What do you think of his succession plan, or lack thereof?

Mr. Bollore: I have no idea. I can't comment on the competitors' succession. My father was very close to [Publicis founder] Marcel [Bleustein-Blanchet], and I knew Maurice Levy when he was young and the head of Publicis. But now I am an important shareholder and chairman of Havas, and he's not as nice as before, because he sees Havas improving month after month. We are competitive. That's it.

Ad Age: You guys haven't made any enormous acquisitions in digital like some of the other holding companies.

Mr. Bollore: Yes, but we have an internal development, which is as spectacular as a big acquisition, because the digital part of our business is improving very fast. If you buy something, that is a lot of money that you can't use for something else and, in addition, you have two closets: In one, you have digital; in the other one, you have no digital. We have preferred to put it together, and I believe it's maybe less bright [and flashy], but more efficient.

Ad Age: What about Arnold? A year ago you talked about Arnold going more global. Is that still the plan?

Mr. Bollore: I will let David answer that.

David Jones: Arnold is in Boston, New York, Washington. In London, in Prague, in Spain, in Italy. ... Brazil has a small presence. Arnold has won in the last two or three months an amazing amount of new business. In fact, two or three people have said this to me in the past few days, they probably have had the best business run of every business in North America, signing Panasonic, Mike's Hard Lemonade, New Balance, Culver and CVS. So the first kind of step of the plan is really to get North America going again as a major successful hub, and it is now, and it's going to be the platform upon which we build the global network.

We're now looking at markets like China, we're looking at Brazil, we're going to be doing something in London to boost our presence there, and Amsterdam. So what you'll see over the course of the next 12 to 18 months is that we'll really put the sort of meat on the bones of building a genuine global micro network. The first step was putting Andrew [Benett] in as the new global CEO, with a very clear global remit, and the second step you're going to see play out over the next 12-18 months is the addition of those cities, and maybe more. Our goal is not to make it a full network, but what we want it to have is somewhere around 10 to 15 offices globally which are, you know, fully owned creative hotshops around the world, and then anywhere else they need to operate, they can operate through to have the [Havas] worldwide network.

Ad Age: What about Aegis? Are you still interesting in combining Aegis with Havas' media-buying division, MPG?

Mr. Bollore: As a financial investor, I am happy with Aegis. When I arrived, I thought that Havas was too small on the media-buying and -planning space. But Havas has developed, and I'm satisfied. It's not my view anymore; Havas is big enough.

Ad Age: Are you going to try again to get the two Aegis board seats you demanded when you became Aegis' largest shareholder?

Mr. Bollore: No. As you know, now we are very happy with the management, and we have no problem, we are voting for the resolution, and we have nice contact with the management, we are happy with what they are doing.

Ad Age: The situation of Havas seems to be more attractive as the economy rebounds. Are you in it for the long haul?

Mr. Bollore: I am totally committed, and one of my sons is now on the board of directors. For us, it's an asset for life.

Ad Age: And what about Aegis?

Mr. Bollore: Aegis is quite different; we have no relationship with them. I appreciate the new chairman ... and he's doing a very good job. But I have no personal relationship; it's totally different than Havas. Havas is a part of my blood now; Aegis is a financial investment.

Mr. Jones: Vincent fundamentally buys into and believes our plan and strategy. We don't need to worry about our doing in quarter one or quarter two, whereas I think every other major holding company is trapped in this quarter-on-quarter profit game, and that isn't necessarily the way you have the best agency.

Ad Age: Do you have confidence in the media assets you have?

Mr. Bollore: Oh, yes, and the facts are proving that we are right. When we started our [TV] network, we had nothing; now we have 2% of the national share. ... We are the third-largest TV group, after TF1 and M6, which is not nothing after five years. We are the top newspaper in France, with 1.3 million [readers] a day. Of course, it's free, so it's easy to do it, but it's a big success.

Ad Age: Do you intend to keep it free as people keep talking about paid content?

Mr. Bollore: Oh, yes, definitely. And we are launching a new daily newspaper in the autumn. ... No news, just views.

Ad Age: So it's all opinion?

Mr. Bollore: Absolutely. It's eight pages, a cheap price of less than 50 euro cents daily, five days a week, and it's only important and famous [bylines]. ... What about health care, what about pollution, what about new technologies? We'll have one or two people, very well known, very famous, giving their opinion about that. We will commit roughly a hundred people working for us every year [on that].

Ad Age: Do you think the recession's over?

Mr. Bollore: The economy is improving and the recession is over. But the reasons that created the recession, which is a financial doubt and operation, are still in the market. And that means that, at any moment, we can still have a financial collapse. So, to answer clearly, the real economy is now very good, and the recovery is clear. But it's still risky, because the root of the problems ... is still present. It's like, you know, you have some gas in your house, but you don't know.

Ad Age: You said you will retire in 2022. Why then?

Mr. Bollore: It's the 17th of February -- save the date, we will have big fiesta. It's the second century of the [Bollore] Group. We will start the third century and it will be the seventh generation. February the 18th, after the big celebration, I will go for a long holiday.

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