With a cautious and prudent strategy, combined with Mr. Levy's own natural discretion and reserve, Publicis is bouncing back from its checkmated takeover attempt of Chicago-based True North Communications last winter.
Thanks to his recent acquisition of U.S. agencies Hal Riney & Partners and EvansGroup, Publicis staged a coup earlier this month by ending up with an estimated $60 million in Hewlett-Packard Co. billings for the marketer's global PC business, taking the U.S. PC account away from Saatchi & Saatchi, San Francisco.
"No move or countermove is ever an end in itself," Mr. Levy said from his office here. "You have to be thinking several moves ahead, and you mustn't tip your hand."
Even before the takeover fiasco with True North finally ended an acrimonious partnership, Mr. Levy's strategy clearly had factored in a possible solo future for Publicis.
In constructing Asian and Latin American networks almost from scratch, Mr. Levy has acquired 25 agencies for the Publicis family since January 1997. But the acquisition of Riney and Evans -- and subsequent creation of a small but respectable U.S. network -- is being seen as a threshold event.
"The Hewlett-Packard win was big, because it means Publicis is now for real in the U.S.," said a longtime observer of the French ad industry, who asked not to be identified. "Today, there are really only two French groups that can be considered big players internationally and which have also staked a claim in the U.S. market -- Euro RSCG and Publicis.
"Maurice Levy still has to develop the agency in the U.S. and elsewhere, but in a lot of ways the hardest part may be over."
Mr. Levy himself stressed the major challenges ahead, noting that the network outside of Europe must be developed, including in various key U.S. markets, New York in particular. In 1993, Publicis acquired the Bloom Agency, which has been combined with some EvansGroup offices in what's now simply called Publicis.
"What counts today for Publicis in the U.S. is critical mass, but also a profile corresponding to what we believe our creative reputation to be elsewhere in the world," he said.
One French ad executive who has seen Publicis operate from within, however, said Mr. Levy may find himself forced to crank up a notch his painstaking, chessboard-like strategy.
"He's made some admirable U.S. acquisitions, and now has a certain critical mass," the executive said. "But he's got to keep moving. In this business, today's acquisition is just another part of tomorrow's stalled network. I know he has had certain clients . . . who have let him know they want him to speed things up."
Any situation in which Mr. Levy feels forced to act would clearly be the kind of position the deliberate yet strong-willed 56-year-old adman abhors.
In addition to his problems in dealing with former partner Bruce Mason, True North chairman-CEO, Mr. Levy now describes the U.S. court order -- a gag order during the 1997 takeover bid that involved Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt -- as having "prevented serious debate over the soundness and logic of our offer, and squelched the democracy of business."
As such, he contends he found himself bound and handicapped in trying to unblock a moribund partnership.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Mr. Levy loathes situations of constraint, where he no longer feels the master of his own destiny. He is so averse to being left vulnerable through exposure that he manages the agency with a passionate attention to detail, a large degree of direct control and even a certain obsession for secrecy.
A self-described workaholic, Mr. Levy admitted he can be "demanding and hard."
It's changing that paternal protection and close management of the group that some observers said will be the second-biggest challenge for Mr. Levy. To complete Publicis' transformation from a French family business into an international heavyweight, they contend, he must abandon a management style inherited from agency founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet.
"Maurice Levy doesn't like sharing power, and feels he needs to control everything," said the French industry observer. "The man is a brilliant businessman, but he's rather dictatorial, secretive, and can be very hard to deal with. He's also naturally assumed a main component of Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet's management -- the personal involvement into every significant decision.
"He does that wisely and well, but the style itself raises questions. It may make him a hero with clients, but is it the best way for a global network to operate?"
WOULD LEVY CHANGE?
Would Mr. Levy, however, consider it necessary to change his style -- an approach developed within the only agency for which he has ever worked, and clearly favored by the late Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet?
Mr. Levy's view of the ad world, after all, remains strikingly different from most others in the industry. In a business sector often built on self-promotion, Mr. Levy thrives on the lowest of profiles.
"I feel to speak about oneself is truly a sign of bad upbringing," Mr. Levy insisted in an interview. "The Publicis philosophy is that people should be talking about the client, not the agency.
"Many agencies feel it's in their own business interest to market and publicize themselves along with their clients," he continued. "We prefer to stand back so all attention is being paid to our clients."
But to continue building the network, Mr. Levy is going to have to make more moves that set tongues wagging.
His U.S. acquisitions propelled Publicis into the top 20 agencies in the country with $1 billion in billings. And the Hewlett-Packard win helped Mr. Levy meet a goal he had set of generating at least 20% of the agency's overall revenues in the U.S. by the year 2000.
For 1998, Publicis expects to boost billings globally by 41% -- 13% through organic growth and 28% through acquisition. Observers estimated Publicis' billings will end up somewhere between $5.5 billion and $6 billion, up from $4.1 billion in 1997.
As for the question of altering his own management style to fit a larger organization, Mr. Levy offered a rare confidence.
"We could never have even pretended to have pitched for a budget like this a year ago," he said, referring to Hewlett-Packard. "Not only were the reputations of our new partners essential in securing this win, but so were our kindred natures. We worked with the Hal Riney people as though we'd been associated for a decade. It was a joy."
Hal Riney agrees. "Things are going fine," said Mr. Riney, who added that he hasn't butted heads with Mr. Levy yet.