Maurice Lévy talks lockdown, Zoom, VivaTech and WeWork

The chairman of Publicis Groupe’s supervisory board, Maurice Lévy, says he is adapting well to life in lockdown, putting in more than 12 hours of work a day from his Paris home and getting more done than ever without the interruptions and “fancy lunches“ of office life.

Joining The Drum on a video call, he explains that Zoom has been key to how Publicis Groupe now operates, adding that it is a “year of glory“ for the platform. “Never could they have expected to grow this fast.“

As well as video conferencing calls, he says many of those 12 hours a day are spent “working through emails and sharing information through virtual presentations“, and that he is often on the phone to chief exec Arthur Sadoun. “We’re having lots of conversations, sometimes more than once a day.“

The strange situation means making a lot of decisions, he adds. “We are making those decisions together when my advice is needed, but otherwise he is running the show and he is doing it extremely well.“

One of the hardest decisions he had to make was to cancel completely this year’s VivaTech – the technology festival he’s been running in the French capital for the past five years. Unlike many other cancelled events, he chose not to create an online, lite version.

“It’s heartbreaking because we had prepared for the fifth anniversary a great VivaTech, we were expecting more exhibitors, more innovation than we usually have, and also the commitment of a huge number of startups and the commitment of great speakers.

“There are a lot of people who are pressuring me to do something else instead, such as webinars, but at an event like VivaTech, where people are meeting and their paths are crossing and they are greeting businesses... a lot of contracts get signed and there are startups who have raised money at the event. It would be a little disappointing to try and do something that is 5% or 10% of what we can usually achieve at this event.”

Last year, VivaTech was visited by 124,000 people and Lévy is aiming to do something just as grand next year. “I hope that we will do it next May or June, but we’re still hesitating a little bit. We have the ambition of meeting the objectives that we have made in the past though. We will create something that is astounding in order that people feel rewarded having waited so much time.”

It isn’t the only change he has had to get used to lately. He recently made headlines for taking on a role at WeWork, before parting company with the financially foundering co-working chain after just a matter of months. He denies that his role there was a chief marketer one.

“[The job at] WeWork was to help put the marketing and communication work together with the support of Publicis,” he explains. “It was a temporary job.”

He adds that he took it on as part of WeWork’s hiring of Publicis. “I enjoyed it enormously. It’s a great concept with great people, and even if it was a problematic situation with a lot of people in a difficult situation and the financial situation was not easy, the concept was – and is – great.

“But obviously, the coronavirus on top of the problems it already has is not helping. When you have social distancing, and when the approach of WeWork is collaboration, there is a whole other layer of difficulty. But the proposition is a great one, the management team is great, and I believe that it would have got out of the mud much earlier than expected had it not been faced with the coronavirus.“

As to his role while there: “I worked a little bit on the plans and helped find the right organisations and helped to spend the money and find the resource – the job that a CMO does – and tried to find the right leverage to help accelerate growth. It was an interesting way of doing it, but I must say that I could not involve myself more because, as I said to Marcelo [Claure, executive chairman of WeWork] when he asked me to join, ’I would help you, but I have a job as the chairman of Publicis and that requires a lot of time.’”

Asked if he would take on a CMO role at a business again, he dodges the question. But he does say he is involved already in companies including YCOR – a tech venture business he founded with his sons – and the Brain Institute in Paris, which he co-founded alongside 11 other entrepreneurs. He calls it one of the top facilities in Europe for researching neurological diseases after only a decade.

“I can’t see myself ever just relaxing. I have a body and brain that is always active. I am always moving and always thinking and I don’t need long hours of sleep. I read a lot when I can, and I am fantastically interested in communications, marketing and what we can do with those tools and what we can bring to clients. This has always been my life and I am still very much interested in it.”

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