|Maurice Levy of Publicis.
Jean-Paul Morin, then Mr. Levy's second-in-command, recalls the moment: "Maurice replied, 'You have in front of you all the corporate headquarters of Publicis.' It was the two of us."
Friends and foes alike single out wafer-thin management throughout Publicis as a notable hallmark of Mr. Levy, who will head the world's fourth-largest agency holding company with the acquisition of Bcom3 Group.
Although on a mission since 1995 to internationalize Publicis deal-by-deal, Mr. Levy continued to run France's largest single ad agency, Publicis Conseil, until 2000. He finally handed over the domestic reins to Jean-Yves Naouri around the time he bought Saatchi & Saatchi for $2 billion. The 350-person flagship Paris agency didn't even have an executive creative director until Mr. Naouri stole two last month from crosstown rival Euro RSCG BETC.
Mr. Morin, the pony-tailed former Publicis chief financial officer who has led mergers and acquisitions, chuckles about being referred
The heads of Publicis-owned agencies say Mr. Levy has a rather laissez-faire approach to how they run their business -- as long as they make their numbers.
For Mr. Levy, 60, ensuring the future of Publicis is a lifetime commitment. No one doubts his sincerity when he says: "What's driven me is I really love Publicis. It's a second family to me."
Risked his life for agency
He joined the agency 31 years ago, as head of the computer department and information technology. The best-known story about Mr. Levy is that he risked his life to rescue company records during a disastrous 1972 fire -- he admits to posing as a firefighter -- enabling the agency to carry on business.
Mr. Levy would rather talk about Publicis than himself, but he has a small stock of anecdotes that he dips into occasionally. For instance, he spent five years before Publicis at a now-defunct Paris agency called Synergie. But when the chairman took Mr. Levy to lunch to offer him the top job, he resigned instead. "If at age 29 I was the best, I was at the wrong agency," he recalled.
Publicis was a perfect fit. His mentor was Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, France's singular legendary adman. Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet founded Publicis in 1926 at the age of 20 and was later a war hero, fighting in the French Resistance before escaping to England to join American troops. In 1957, he bought Publicis' current headquarters -- a former hotel on the Champs-Elysees that had served as General Eisenhower's command post right after World War II. Ike's battlefield jacket, photos and other memorabilia are still proudly on display, as are photos of Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet and Charles de Gaulle.
Numbers and signs
Publicis' very name conjures up memories of its founder. He invented it by combining the first two syllables of the French word for advertising, "publicite," with the number six, spelled "six" but pronounced "seize" in French, to form Publicis. His date of birth was August 6, 1906. His astrological sign, Leo, gave Publicis its lion logo.
Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet built up the clients that are still the agency's bedrock. This is Nestle's 50th year at Publicis, and next year marks four decades for Renault. During its 76-year history, Publicis has had just two chief executives -- Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet and his protege Mr. Levy.
Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet's office adjacent to Mr. Levy's has been preserved as he left it when he died six years ago, at age 90. Before the stock dilution of the Bcom3 deal, his two daughters and their children were the largest shareholders of Publicis. His older daughter, Elisabeth Badinter, a philosophy professor and wife of France's former Minister of Justice, chairs the supervisory board Mr. Levy reports to. He usually reviews company business with Mme. Badinter twice a week in her father's office. She sits at the conference table, never at her father's desk.
Preparing the next generation
This sense of Publicis as a legacy, with a duty owed to the company's founder as though he will one day ask Mr. Levy for an accounting of his stewardship, is deeply felt. There is no clear successor yet to Mr. Levy, who anticipates staying in his job until "at least 65 or 66."
"My task is to prepare a new generation so the board has a choice," he said.
Mr. Levy only embarked on an international expansion drive for Publicis after the notorious failure of his alliance with True North Communications. The True North deal was supposed to give Publicis a U.S. presence and True North's Foote, Cone & Belding a European network. Instead, Mr. Levy and his True North counterpart Bruce Mason ended up wrangling in court. The acrimonious joint venture over, Mr. Levy in 1995 had to start his outside-France ambitions over again almost from scratch.
Mr. Levy's very public warfare with True North was followed by his quickly rejected bid for the company. Later he flirted with Y&R but was never seen as a serious contender.
He is painfully aware that his reputation in the U.S. was, in his words, "negative."
"I had to gain credibility after my True North adventure," he said. "I was portrayed by a lot of people as a kind of Napoleon."
Even after a string of acquisitions -- Saatchi, Fallon, Hal Riney & Partners, Frankel and Nelson Communications -- Publicis was a distant also-ran to the big three holding companies, WPP Group, Omnicom Group and Interpublic Group of Cos. Even French rival Havas was ahead. It was time to "reshuffle the deck," he said.
Future in consolidation
"The reason for Bcom3 was because clients have been consolidating with the top three, and there would be no future for people who were not part of it," Mr. Levy said. "I looked at all the independent operations. If we were to redesign the industry, so the three musketeers become four, who had the best assets? Bcom3."
With the $3 billion Bcom3 deal, Publicis leaps up from the No. 6 holding company. It also may have seized the last opportunity to add a significant player to the industry, shutting everyone else out. By some accounts, Havas was also talking to Bcom3 in an attempt to do the same thing, although Havas never confirmed that. "We are now putting ourselves in a position to have a say," Mr. Levy said.
Unlike his three counterparts, who increasingly function as superagencies managing the biggest client relationships from the parent company, Mr. Levy hews to the traditional holding company model. This, even though, or maybe because, he now has four global networks to call his own: Saatchi, Publicis, Leo Burnett, and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles.
"I understand the need for size and critical mass, but dealing with the holding company is something I don't believe is right," he said. "I think it's contrary to the concept of a holding company, with guarantees of Chinese walls and each network run autonomously, so the client can be sure there is no conflict."
He is serene about post-Bcom3 conflicts, saying merely that "some clients have more questions than others." The new company has several automakers on its client roster, including BMW at Fallon, Renault at Publicis, Toyota Motor Corp. at Saatchi and General Motors Corp. at D'Arcy. That has prompted at least one rival, Interpublic, to hope for some fallout.
In early April, three small groups are forming to see the Bcom3 deal through. Mr. Morin is leading the closing group with Craig Brown, Bcom3's president-chief operating officer. This is Mr. Morin's last deal. He said he will retire to enjoy his sailboat, a house in Brittany and collecting antiques and old travel books. To fill the gap, Mr. Levy has promoted financial executive Jean-Michel Etienne to chief financial officer and hired Pierre Benaich from Danone Groupe, where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions, as Publicis' first investor relations director.
A second small group, led by Mr. Levy and Bcom3 CEO Roger Haupt, will be in charge of integration. (Mr. Haupt is to become president-chief operating officer of the Publicis management board.) The role of a third will be how to develop the relationship with Dentsu, the Bcom3 partner that will own 15% of the new Publicis.
Still basking in pulling off the Bcom3 purchase,Mr. Levy won't debate the logic of next buying Grey Global Group, with $1.2 billion in 2001 revenue, to consolidate virtually all Procter & Gamble Co.'s business under one holding company roof.
"I'm not thinking about the next acquisition, if any," he said. "I'm putting all my energy behind making the merger not only work but exemplary in the way it works, making it a case study."