NEW YORK Ten years ago, Publicis Groupe struggled to find a global positioning as it emerged from an acrimonious alliance with True North. Today, after acquisitions and organic expansion, Publicis has achieved a worldwide footprint and respect as one of the industry's innovators. Last week Maurice Lévy talked to Adweek's Noreen O'Leary about the holding company's new Oral-B initiatives for Procter & Gamble, Publicis' recently acquired Digitas unit and his own plans to step down as Publicis' CEO.
Adweek: Can you provide some insights into Procter & Gamble's transfer of Oral-B business to Publicis Groupe companies, and do you foresee P&G forming other integrated teams by category?
Maurice Lévy: We'll see if there's other fallout. This is a kind of test market. It's a "first" and the idea is obviously to bring to life a true, holistic approach. The holistic, 360-degree approach is something many people speak about. We do it with a lot of clients, although we never do it 100 percent. There's probably no single client on earth who is doing it 100 percent, and the idea with Oral-B is not only to do it 100 percent, it is to do it 100 percent globally and locally. There are three interesting aspects to the proposal we made to P&G: The first is to use a planning approach that integrates channel planning as well as brand planning. Secondly, we'll have all our operations working together, including people who work only on a limited aspect of an account, people who usually are invited to work only at the last minute. They will be integrated from day one in the process. The third aspect, obviously, is to make this work as much as a global concept as a local application. We are putting a lot of imagination into this. If this works, it will be a benchmark—it will then be up to P&G to decide if they want to extend this to other operations.
What are your corporate priorities this year?
The first priority is digital, where we want to expand in many different areas. Obviously, the first one is to work with [Digitas CEO] David Kenny to build a global network for Digitas. The second area where we are investing is strengthening the digital expertise of all of our operations, because we believe digital should not be in a kind of ghetto. . . . Digitas is limited because of the conflict issue, but all operations should use Digitas. The third area of growth and acquisitions is the emerging markets. We want to push our operations into new areas like the Yong Yang acquisition [announced last week], which is going into China's Tier 3 and Tier 4 cities with field marketing. We are also looking at some other operations to strengthen our agencies in India, in Russia and in some other markets that we believe will grow faster than the average of the world.
In general, how well do you think the industry is transitioning into the digital era?
The problem we all have is we cannot move much faster than the clients. We have to go a little bit faster, be slightly ahead of the client, [but] not much more because otherwise we find ourselves in the situation where we were at the end of the '90s. We learned from that situation we should build solid operations that are no longer the dot.com approach, but go to the heart of the needs of the client and not to be too much ahead of their needs. We at Publicis have decided to move much faster than our competitors for two reasons: First, it's easier for us than our competitors because we have a ship which is easier to maneuver. When you look at our boat, it's half the size of WPP or Omnicom, so we are more flexible and can move faster. The second aspect is we can move to new areas because we are less exposed in marketing services, so we don't have the problem of protecting a business of the past.
What are your concerns about Fallon, which lost United Airlines last week?
Very often we see agencies with ups and downs and the key question is how good is the core of the agency? [Pat] Fallon has not lost his stamina, his creative spirit. The agency has not lost its will to win. They had bad luck and some unfair decisions. I think the shift of BMW was unfair—although I will not dispute that reason—but sometimes you are suffering from a decision that is not what you deserve. We are facing a period that is not very good, it's not very pleasant, but I'm sure at the end of the day we will find a very good solution for Fallon. They will bounce back, they will rebound.
What about the state of Publicis & Hal Riney?
Publics & Hal Riney, unfortunately, has lost their three fundamental clients: Sprint, HP and, some years ago, Saturn. I believe the agency had the right solution for Saturn; it's too bad they we were not able to convince the client. Again, I believe this agency has some strong capabilities and I'm pretty sure they will be back.
What about your own succession?
I announced the date two years ago. I want to make it very clear for everyone that I will be leaving in 2010. We are working with [Publicis'] supervisory board, because the decision of succession is something that belongs to the board. My duty is to make sure there are at least two or three very good candidates so the board has a choice, and that's what I am doing so the board can choose amongst the very good people we already have in our organization.
That individual will most likely be French?
No. The decision will not belong to me, and we are a global company. One of the most successful CEOs in France has been Lindsay Owen-Jones, who has been leading [Publicis client] L'Oreal, and for 20 years Lindsay Owen-Jones has done a terrific job. L'Oreal is a very French company that has been led by a British person for 20 years. Now he is the chairman of the company; there is a Frenchman in charge as a CEO. This shows that a French company can be led by foreigners, so it is not impossible that the Publicis supervisory board decides the right choice for my successor should be an Anglo-Saxon or a Chinese. I don't know.
What will you be doing after 2010? Will you stay involved in this business?
[Laughing] I really don't know. I'm a man with a small brain and that has always made Publicis relatively successful. We are focusing on what we are doing. So I'm focused.