When The Drum meets with Maurice Levy, long-time CEO of international marketing group Publicis, it is in the shade of the sun-soaked terrace of the Majestic Hotel on La Croisette in Cannes. He is straight off stage having interviewed Heineken CEO Jean-Francois Van Boxmeer and its chief marketing officer Alexis Nasard during a keynote interview at the Festival venue La Palais. So recognisable and connected a figure is Levy, that sitting next to the entrance to the terrace, a number of people walk buy and stop to say hello, including Philip Thomas, CEO of the festival itself.
“It’s always the same kind of ambiance,” explains Levy, of his annual interviews at the festival. “I’m trying to do some very serious things and I’m trying to tackle some very serious issues in a very nice way with warmth and empathy in order to connect with the audience as well as the interviewees who I also want to be seen as the heroes, while I am not.”
This rings true for a man who carries huge gravitas and takes himself seriously, but does so with a warmth and charm that is surely one of the reasons his board is so keen for him to remain, despite his clear intention to retire.
Levy is reluctant to discuss his views on what the sponsors of the upcoming Brazilian World Cup and Olympic Games should do in reaction to the Brazilian riots currently taking place, having spent the past two days travelling, so The Drum quickly moves to a subject he knows all too well – Publicis Groupe.
He discusses his time at the company in a forthright manner, offering his view on the major changes he has witnessed in both the group and the industry over his four decades since joining at its director of IT.
“In 1971, television was the nascent, burgeoning media for advertising in France. People were queuing to get space.
They were making reservations a year ahead. If you were not asking for space in June there was no way that you would get your ad running on TV that year.”
Those times have well and truly changed with traditional media outlets now struggling to find advertisers as a result of the competition for marketing spend as a result of media fragmentation, but Levy believes that the need to build around emotion remains the same.
He also believes that the industry is beginning to come full circle, with full service agencies being rebuilt to include the ever expanding digital services that have appeared on the scene in recent years, and that the impact of mobile is forthright in that evolution.
“Everything has changed: the structure of the agency, the position of the advertiser, the media landscape, and the behaviour of the consumers due to the fact that the consumer is using mobile communications much more in how they organise themselves,” he says.
Levy highlights the global growth of Publicis and the expansion of client needs internationally, which has meant a change of strategy and thinking across different regions, describing the Japanese and Koreans as “proactively building” as they see their economies grow.
“You go to China and everything you have learned about Europe has to be erased from your brain because the Chinese market is very different and the positioning that you can have here is irrelevant for the Chinese market because you are competing on a different level, with different brands and different behaviours and you are talking to and selling to an
audience which is extremely different, with different views and interests.”
The conversation moves to his plans for retirement, on which he has set a firm deadline of 31 December 2015, and why Publicis has struggled to find a successor. He offers two reasons, highlighting the same problem of Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP and John Wren at Omnicom, who have also “changed the competitive landscape” while building their organisations around them, leaving them deeply entrenched in all aspects of their global empires.
“It is something which is really very different from the old traditional agency where somebody was groomed to succeed,” Levy states, having clearly spent a lot of time considering this conundrum.
“We are builders and entrepreneurs,” he says of the three, but adds that Interpublic Group could also be included.
“I am the only one who has been running an agency, managing accounts, winning clients and presenting adverts. It’s a combination which is quite rare,“ he declares in comparison with his peers.
Levy continues to his second reason, stating that the boards each have a level of trust in their leader, having been, in Levy’s own words “so far, quite successful”.
On the matter of age, he adds: “There is always the fact that the population is aging as people live longer, that the age of retirement is being postponed, so you can still function and it is quite a credible position for the board although a bit frustrating for the next wave who must wonder how long they must continue to wait while these old people stay.”
Despite this, he reiterates his desire to retire by the deadline and is adamant in his refusal to speculate over anyone who might be capable of taking over the running at any of the big marketing networks in the near future.
Asked about the recent data sharing deal with Twitter and media agency Starcom MediaVest, he is positive that it has so far been a success, and alludes to the similar deal made by rival WPP within a couple of months with the micro-blogging platform.
“We like to be the leaders so we are extremely pleased to see that we get the thinking about digital right and the digital economy and the digital industry has identified us as the people who are doing it well,” he adds.
Levy is proud of the interconnectivity between Publicis agencies, and tells The Drum that he loathes to see them compete against one another, despite his description of the industry as being full of ‘individuals’ who want to show what they are capable of and stand up for their points of view and ideas.
“We value very much this aspect, but at the same time, due to the complexity of our world we have to have more collaboration. This is something we are working on and it is a little more complicated because we don’t wish to emasculate our people by forcing them to do things that they don’t like.
“We love the idea that they can collaborate and we like the rebel spirit which is very often the one who can bring some disruption or thinking out of the box…We need to find the right balance and that is not something you can instruct, it is something that you have to monitor and manage in a way that is seen as friendly, amicable and collaborative.”
And with that, the interview is over. As Levy departs, none other than Sir Martin Sorrell enters the sunshine of the terrace, the two passing like ships in the night. Oh, the possibility.