France is again a superpower, if only in the advertising world

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I had gotten in the habit of stopping off in London, on the way back from the Cannes festival, to schmooze the U.K. players. This year, based on the number and intensity of assaults out of France, I decided instead to visit Paris. To confirm the wisdom of my decision, Maurice Levy bought Saatchi & Saatchi just a few days before I landed.

Levy, tall and elegant, is the president-CEO of Publicis Group. After more than his share of stumbles, he had charted a clearer U.S. course with the acquisitions of Fallon Worldwide, Hal Riney & Partners and Frankel. The Saatchi deal, coming weeks after he seriously weighed a rival bid to WPP's for Y&R, was the capper.

Levy's lesser-known, though no less aggressive, rival is Alain de Pouzilhac, the chairman-CEO of Havas Advertising. Despite the acquisitions of such well-known agency brands as Messner Etc. and Jordan McGrath, de Pouzilhac's U.S. profile was low to invisible before February's $2.1 billion buy of Snyder Communications. Even today, few U.S. ad types would recognize him on the street. But they've all heard of him.

Earlier this year, Ad Age noted that the first French invasion of the U.S. ad business came in the early 1990s. "But lack of strategic vision and poor international management skills scuttled their plans," we wrote. "The French watched from the sideline while U.S. and U.K. holding companies took dominant positions on the world stage."

The French are now, officially, in the game. Havas is the world's fourth largest ad organization--behind WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic. Publicis, with Saatchi, becomes No. 5.

"We started very late," Levy said when asked why the French were suddenly willing to spend so much--too much, say critics of the recent dealmaking--for a U.S. presence. "The only way to be respected as a global player is to have a strong and recognized presence in the U.S."

Although they maintain a healthy rivalry ("I am lost," de Pouzilhac says when asked about Publicis' acquisition strategy), both men lay out similar plans and priorities. They want to grow their U.S. presences. They want to expand in marketing services. They want to develop creatively-oriented networks-- Fallon in Levy's case, Campus in de Pouzilhac's.

De Pouzilhac, with his bushy salt-and-pepper hair and rolled-up sleeves, comes across as more casual than Levy, and is less comfortable with his English. But his green eyes are intense and his strategy clear.

"We had a three-year plan and we reached and exceeded our targets and eight objectives 18 months before," he said.

Now there's a new three-year plan. "Our goal is to be the most developed in marketing services," said de Pouzilhac. "Omnicom and WPP were created to have strong advertising networks. Our vision is not to acquire [another] traditional advertising network, but to develop database, research, direct marketing, interactive."

U.S. revenue now accounts for 45% of Havas' total, in line with U.S. expenditures. Marketing services accounts for 60% of the total, a figure he would like to see rise to as high as 75%.

De Pouzilhac also has big plans for Campus, now led by Arnold Communications chief Ed Eskandarian. It's in seven countries, with plans to be in 12 by yearend.

Publicis is more advertising-oriented, with 22% of revenue from marketing services. Levy says that figure will hit 30% soon. Thirty-eight percent of revenue now comes from the U.S., a number he says will be "in the range of 40% by yearend" through "limited acquisition."

Levy blames the collapse of his True North partnership on personality clashes and ego. But he acknowledged that deals between French and U.S. companies often end badly, which he attributed to deeper cultural issues. In great detail, he spoke about "the drama of resistance," the nobility of culture and stubborn pride. This being France, cheese and wine were somehow factors as well.

"There is a problem that has nothing to do with business," he said. "It has to do with the inner nature of the French. We were, in the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the most powerful countries in the world, and we don't accept not being that any more."

In the ad business at least, that's no longer a problem.

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