Maurice Levy's War Against Complacency

And Why He Likes to Keep Employees Off Balance

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'Without change, there is fossilization,' says Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
'Without change, there is fossilization,' says Publicis Groupe Chairman-CEO Maurice Levy. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: Chris Cassidy
Stable Management is:

A) A "trade publication for the professional horseperson";

B) A primary objective of many businesses, and a sure path to profitable growth;

C) Anathema to Maurice Levy.

The answer -- as if you haven't already guessed -- is D) all of the above. But while the equine-business magazine appears (from a perfunctory perusal of its website) fascinating, it's not the focus of today's conversation.

Monsieur Levy
No, this is about Monsieur Levy, the urbane and shrewd Frenchman who helms Publicis Groupe, the world's fourth-largest marketing-communications holding company. And it's about a management philosophy that runs counter to the way many leaders define their roles. For all the cliche-filled chatter about change (it's constant; we need to embrace it; if we don't, we'll die), the aim of many managers is to raise and maintain morale by providing a stable, secure workplace.

Not Levy. His goal is to break down people's natural resistance to change by throwing them off balance. I'm not sure I agree with his approach -- in fact, I'm pretty sure I don't. But in a PR-managed business marked by bland, heavily scripted (read: meaningless) corporate statements, I find myself drawn to strongly voiced, passionately held beliefs that run counter to conventional wisdom. If nothing else, they challenge deeply entrenched views, forcing us to confront and justify entrenched positions.

Cannes interview
I interviewed Levy in late June during the Cannes festival for a special commemorative section on Publicis that will appear in Ad Age in the fall. Sipping espresso and smoking a cigar, Levy touched on a wide range of topics during our 90-minute conversation on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel. But his management philosophy of intentional destabilization deserves to be highlighted.

"If we do not consider it urgent to change, people will not," he said. "Why should they? People hate to change. They become scared about not only their own job, but the way they will do their work, if they will be up to the task, if they will have a role."

That's exactly how Levy likes it. "I have never stabilized an organization," he boasted. "Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don't expect."

Disrupted business models
That's especially true when digital technologies are disrupting business models and communications strategies. Levy argues that being unsure of where they fit in causes people to work harder to carve out a place for themselves. "It is very important to create this destabilization of the mind in order that they don't feel secure, [so] they spend a lot of time trying to understand the new world."

The threat of complacency, in this view, outweighs the morale benefits of a stable workplace. "Without change, there is fossilization," Levy warns, "and that's the worst thing that can happen."

The boldness of Levy's views, and his willingness to express them, helps explain why the French government tapped him to lead a commission aimed at quantifying the economic value of non-manufacturing segments such as advertising. It also explains why he emerged, somewhat improbably at the time (but inevitably in retrospect), as one of the four most influential men in the agency game.

His philosophy best applies in a creative industry where bureaucracy can do significant harm. "Ideas," he says, "are so fragile, so tenuous" that managers must "destroy layers" that can obscure or damage them. "If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel."
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