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Maurice Levy’s legacy: The 30-year reign that transformed Publicis and transfixed the advertising industry

Maurice Levy circa 1975

For the last three decades, Maurice Levy has been the towering presence atop what he has built to become the world’s third biggest marcomms network.

Along with his WPP counterpart and arch-rival Sir Martin Sorrell, 74-year-old Levy has established a reputation as one of the advertising world’s dominant figures.

And though Sorrell and Levy have found much to disagree on over the years – often to our entertainment – these squabbling septuagenarians have always had one thing in common: the delicate matter of who would succeed them at the helms of their global operations.

It was an open secret that Arthur Sadoun had emerged as the chosen one within Paris-headquarted Publicis, so it came as little surprise to the industry when the news that he will take over from Levy on 1 June was finally confirmed last night.

But to understand why a seemingly routine CEO transition warrants so much scrutiny, you first must appreciate the legacy Levy has forged since taking up those reins from his own mentor and idol Marcel Bluestein-Blanchet in 1987.

Sadoun is not simply inheriting a powerful position with a sizeable salary to match (Levy earns around $3.1m a year); the 44-year-old head of Publicis Communications is about to become only the third person to lead the entire Groupe since it was founded in 1926.

As Levy himself said in the announcement last night: “It goes without saying that we are not very used to this kind of exercise. For the simple reason that in 90 years, it’s only happened once, when Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the founder of Publicis, passed the baton to me.”

This passing of the baton is particularly symbolic because Elisabeth Badinter, chair of the Publicis Groupe supervisory board and president of the nominating committee, is Bleustein-Blanchet's daughter. Levy has always sought to respect the family's traditions, and Sadoun will now have to do likewise.

Levy joined Publicis in 1971, as IT director. Just a year into the role, he risked his life for the company when a fire broke out at its headquarters on the Champs-Élysées. Donning a fireman’s leather jacket and helmet which he found in a nearby truck, he rushed inside the burning building to save the magnetic tapes which held the firm’s precious computer files.

An act of such unfathomable loyalty to a business he had been with so briefly reveals something of Levy’s nature, and speaks to a gutsiness and foresight that explains why he has remained there, so prominently, for so long. Despite the fire ripping through the company’s offices on the Thursday, Levy’s heroism meant it was still able to invoice clients on time the following Tuesday. No wonder he was popular with the board.

Demonstrating a business acumen to match his talent for computer programming, Levy rose through the ranks at what was still a profoundly regional advertising operation, becoming marketing director of its flagship agency Publicis Conseil in 1976 and leaping to chairman and chief executive by 1984. Three years later, he was named chairman and chief executive of the entire Publicis Groupe.

Under Levy’s stewardship, Publicis embarked on a journey of rapid global expansion. One of his first major actions was to forge an alliance with the US firm Foote, Cone & Belding Communications (FCB), an ultimately ill-fated arrangement which would be echoed years later in Publicis’s failed merger with another US outfit, Omnicom.

"It was clear even then that the world of business would go global and that we would have no future unless we did too," Levy told the Independent in 2006, explaining a philosophy that saw Publicis acquire more than 60 agencies in his first 10 years at the helm. In 2000, Levy finally closed a deal with the network he had been courting for five years, and the one that truly took it onto the global stage, with the eye-catching acquisition of the venerable Saatchi & Saatchi. A €4.8bn buyout of Leo Burnett followed shortly after.

This advertising acquisition spree propelled Publicis into the industry’s big league. In recent years, Levy’s time (and no little of the Groupe's money) has been spent broadening Publicis's focus beyond traditional advertising with heavy investments in technology and digital marketing – snapping up the likes of Performics from Google in 2008, Razorfish from Microsoft in 2009, LBi in 2013 and Sapient Nitro in 2014.

Such deals have served to futureproof Publicis and cement its status as one of the ‘big four’ holding groups alongside WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom. Alas, there is always one that got away, and if Levy had pulled off the grandest coup of his career, his group would now be the joint biggest.

It is impossible to talk about Levy’s legacy without acknowledging the deal that never was – the failed ‘merger of equals’ of Publicis and Omnicom. Their ambition to create the world’s largest marcomms group – leapfrogging an aghast Sorrell and his WPP empire – stunned an unsuspecting industry and started so promisingly with Levy and his Omnicom counterpart John Wren posing for photographs in front of the Arc de Triomphe in July 2013. Nine months of intense legal wrangling and culture clashes later, triumph had turned to disaster as the merger finally – perhaps predictably – collapsed.

A successful marriage of these two industry giants would have been a fitting final act in Levy’s celebrated career, which has seen him garlanded with honours such as commander of the French Legion of Honor, a distinguished services award from the International Advertising Association and the leader of the decade from the Grand Prix Des Agencies De L’Annee. The failed merger was perhaps in Levy’s thoughts last night, when he said in a video message to staff: “The stories of epic battles, fought for our clients, or against some competitors – some heinous – are also up there with the memory that will last a lifetime. Just like the iconic wins, or a few failures – I had a few of them too. I believe failures are important because they are a part of what makes you who you are.”

By the time of the proposed Omnicom merger, Levy’s retirement was already well on the cards, but he was not ready to leave Publicis in the shadow of that doomed deal. Instead, he pushed back the date for stepping down and redoubled his efforts on leading the group towards digital transformation. It is therefore a neat reminder of his early obsession with technology that the last seismic deal he will be known for is not a failed one, but the $3.7bn acquisition of digital outfit SapientNitro. Having since instituted a major restructuring of the business that involved reshaping Sapient and its existing digital arm into Sapient.Publicis, he can now retire in the knowledge that his work is done.

When Levy guest edited The Drum’s print edition in 2015, he gave our readers a tour of his office, where he shared some of his prized possessions. Among them was a bible. “Why a bible in my office? No, I’m not religious, I’m not the kind of guy who looks at the bible and [makes] decisions based on that, but this bible has a very special significance. It was the only thing to be rescued from the office of Marcel Bluestein-Blanchet during the Publicis building fire of 1972, and he decided to give me it at his death.”

Levy understood that succeeding someone so influential carries a heavy burden, and Sadoun is about to find out what that feels like. Today’s Publicis, with a market capitalisation of $14.7bn and a share price that has risen 24% in the past 12 months, is a world away from the one Levy took over in 1987. Sadoun has a tough act to follow.

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