Over Breakfast, Publicis' Jean-Yves Naouri Talks About China

How Holding Company Plans to Make China Its No. 2 Market by 2015

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Jean-Yves Naouri walks past the fresh-noodle station, the smoothie bar and the carved ham on the lavish breakfast buffet at the Pudong Shangri-La hotel in Shanghai. Instead, he settles for a few bits of bread and cheese.

Jean-Yves Naouri
Jean-Yves Naouri

To combat jetlag from traveling 200 days a year, Mr. Naouri tries to keep his body clock on Paris time. According to his watch, which he never changes no matter where he is in the world, it's 2:30 a.m. back home -- not a time for a big meal.

The COO of French advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe and executive chairman of agency network Publicis Worldwide was making his once-a-month visit to China, where he routinely meets with agencies, clients, talent and prospective acquisitions. It's a hectic itinerary to match the pace of a country where the economy grew 9.2% last year.

"It is a characteristic of the Chinese people, there is an expectation in every area to improve things as quickly as possible," Mr. Naouri said.

The frenetic pace of growth can be seen in the Shangri-La breakfast area, where some groups of diners were already talking business at this luxury hotel popular among executives. It sits on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai, an area that changed from fields of vegetables to a forest of skyscrapers within a decade.

Publicis has said that its goal is to double its size in China within three years, by the end of 2013, and so far things are "on track," Mr. Naouri said.

"We are on our way to doing that , and that remains the focus," he said, adding that a parallel goal is for China -- currently Publicis' fourth-largest market -- to become its second-largest by 2015, trailing only the U.S.

"I encourage everyone's efforts but I'm also very demanding and from time to time you have to pause and say, 'That was great,' but let's not rest and keep moving," he said about maintaining the momentum in China. Revenue from its Greater China business jumped 8.5% in 2011.

Key focus areas are health-care and digital -- especially social, search and e-commerce. Publicis made a slew of China acquisitions last year, and announced the latest, health-care-communications agency U-Link Business Solutions Co., this week.

"It's very important for us to keep the right balance between organic growth and acquisitions," he said. "There is no appetite to buy revenue, it's not what we're doing."

Meanwhile, Mr. Naouri has noticed that Chinese marketers are increasingly interested in growing their brands internationally.

"It's not either we stay domestic or we go international, they want to do both. They believe that by improving brand awareness and going international, it's going to have some impact both inside and outside China," he said.

As for one of the most closely watched issues in advertising -- who will take over when Publicis chairman-CEO Maurice Levy retires? -- Mr. Naouri, believed to be the leading contender, professed ignorance. Mr. Levy has stayed on beyond his anticipated retirement date to help search for his successor.

"I don't know when he will retire, this is not a question that we are asking today. He has been renewed for four years so -- gosh -- we have four years to think about that ," he said.

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