Maurice Levy on the future of Publicis, a 90-year-old startup

CEO discusses firm's anniversary, its reorganization and that P&G review

“They must have assumed I had clones,” Maurice Levy quipped.

The CEO of Publicis Groupe had come straight from landing at the airport to meet with Marketing before embarking on an itinerary in Toronto that included speaking at FFWD: Advertising Week 2016, delivering a town hall speech to local employees, meetings with clients and taking in a Raptors game.

On the other hand, the 73-year-old executive seemed full of energy as he spoke about the company’s decision to reorganize itself around four divisions and its plans to mark nine decades in the business. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You recently attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. What were the key takeaways for you, your business and your clients? 

It was probably one of the very best. I’ve been going to Davos for more than 20 years. I’m a veteran. There were four big themes. The most important one was the idea of the fourth Industrial Revolution, which is based on the book by Claus Schwab. We had numerous discussions and meetings about what it would mean for the consumer, the citizen, how many jobs would be destroyed or created.

This is where we do play a role, because my vision was that digital will affect our business quite dramatically, and when we invested in this through the acquisition of Digitas, very few people thought we were right. They thought it was a waste, it was dispensable. Now it’s part of the landscape, it’s normal. Then we acquired Razorfish and more recently Sapient. Part of that is about communication, but it is a small part. There is a large part of Sapient which is about consulting and technology. They are helping our team to help our client to understand what are the challenges and how to deal with those challenges.

What prompted you to take the next step in not just acquiring companies, but helping launch them with the Publicis90 Fund?

It’s interesting, because when Marcel Bleustein-Blanche opened (Publicis Groupe) in 1906, it was two bedrooms. So it was really a startup as we know it today. It took us much longer than a startup to have 70,000, 80,000 people, which we have today. But, when we were gathering the team to talk about what we should be doing to celebrate, the brief was, “You can do whatever you want, but this is what I don’t want: to look back at our past and to celebrate the past. I don’t want to celebrate the past. I want to celebrate the future.” They struggled because it’s not easy, and when we had the meeting they presented plenty of projects — not this one — and someone suddenly said, “You know, we had this other idea but it’s probably not realistic: 90 years, 90 startups.” I knew it was the one.

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What’s been the reaction so far?  

It’s been about 10 days and I’ve done two interviews [about it]. One was a French radio station, the other was Business Insider India. As of yesterday evening, we had 46,000 visits on the website, and we have 1,633 projects which have been registered. We already have more than we can choose, but that’s okay. The idea behind it, first and foremost, is to help people realize their projects. We started out offering two things, but now there are actually three things: an amount of money that goes from 10,000 euros –for those who want to make a mockup, for example — to a startup which already exists, who can get 500,000 euros. The second thing is one of our executives will be their buddy and a mentor for them for a full year. Now there is something else which happened: our clients, our partners, said, “Maurice, this is a great idea. We want to join. We will match [your investment].” It came spontaneously. I don’t know how many will do it, but we had some who said, “I absolutely want to select some projects led by women, and I will match what you are doing if it’s a startup led by women.” Someone else was very interested in startups in life sciences.

What do you hope the startups you support will contribute to the changes the advertising industry is facing? 

We expect them to succeed. We don’t expect anything for us. If we lose our money, we lose our money. This is how you can be a good investor; you have to take risks. But, my interest is not that Publicis will make a lot of money, though this may happen — we could have one of these “unicorns” as they say. But, what we do hope is that the people who have a dream can make it happen.

Startups often change business models, products or direction quickly, but you’re attempting something similar with the changes you’re making to Publicis. How do you think those changes will affect the culture of the organization, and how are you shaping that? 

It’s a huge undertaking. Some people can think it’s a bet, but it’s a reasonable one. If we are true to our words, and we say yes, the world is going through a huge transformation, and yes, our clients have to transform themselves to meet the needs of the consumer, we cannot stay the same with an organization [that was designed] at the start of the former century. When you look at how the holding companies have been built, there is, for very good reasons, a siloed approach. And this has been very good for us, because there has been building specialization, talent has been able to grow in certain areas. But, at the same time there has developed a feeling of isolation, and the clients have not seen the fruits of the integration. So we have approached that quite dramatically. The first is to think client-first, which means a P&L by client. The vertical will not be our operation, the verticals will be our client business, and we will offer our clients all our operation, all our possibilities, and that is what we have called the power of One.

How will that be different than the way you approach clients today?

When a client comes to us, they’re most often coming to us with a problem, not a solution. And what they are expecting from us is to solve the problem. We decided the first answer should be a creative answer: communication. So we have put together our top network around communication. Then we created one around media, and so on. All this is working in a way which has never been seen before, and we have focused on the top 20 markets, because they represent more than 90% of our business. And in all the other markets we are creating Publicis One.

How do you communicate these changes without alarming current clients? 

In the good old days, when a CEO was speaking internally, the fear of that CEO, the communication team and the board was to have something leak of what they were doing. In that case, we have decided the leak will go out by ourselves. The speech that I am delivering here in Toronto is something you can find on YouTube. All this is transparent. I have not hesitated to say, yes, we have silos, and that we can say we can be much better organized. We can unleash all our potential in order to best serve our clients. I have not hidden myself behind a kind of protection or kept company secret. We are in a new century, a new world, and we have to share this very openly.

You’ve also made it very clear this wasn’t prompted by the agency review from P&G, but how does something like that affect the way you proceed? 

The reviews are creating a small problem, which is that they take a lot of time and energy. It’s our process because we are focused on protecting, defending, winning our various businesses. In this we have been able to win a few accounts. We have lost a few. In total, we feel pretty good about what we have done. Obviously we would have preferred to win more and lose less. There is also one very important issue: we are in a world of deflation. All our clients are going for less. There is a lot of competition on prices, and on some specific areas which can be isolated to get some service reductions. Fine, we understand this is a trend — it is not something you can always fight against. But clearly the clients are struggling, because their own revenues are challenged, their position is challenged, and we have to deliver more with less.


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