THE POWER OF ONE. Maurice Lévy is Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Publicis Groupe, the French multinational advertising and public relations company that has overtaken all other ad holding companies to become the world’s No.1 agency group in terms of market value.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Maurice Lévy, for many years you worked with the founder of Publicis, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and you became his successor. Today Publicis operates in more than 100 countries. How many people work for you?

85,000. I’m not sure it is a metric of success because 85,000 families represent a huge responsibility that I feel every night when I am going to bed.

What is the story of your growth? 

It can all be summarized in one sentence: I did not know it was impossible and therefore I did it.

When did Publicis start to go global?

In the mid-80s Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet decided to put me in the role of CEO, but Marcel reacted negatively when I explained that we had to transform Publicis and make it more global. He said not only are advertising and marketing techniques invented by the Americans, but also Publicis was born in Paris, in France, a country which hates the market economy system in which supply and demand direct the production of goods and services. But the problem was that the market had changed dramatically, brands were becoming international and were asking for campaigns that could be shared everywhere.

Did Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet learn a lot from the US? 

Yes, as a young man Marcel visited CBS, met with the people of J Walter Thompson, and met with Gallup. He was struck by how Gallup was doing polling, and brought back from the US an understanding of how, with a small group of people, you can have an image of what the whole nation would think about an election, a politician or a product.

I did not know it was impossible and therefore I did it.

Maurice Lévy

A young Maurice Lévy with Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the founder of Publicis

Maurice Lévy, was Publicis always very successful?  

The best agency in France, with a very different approach to creativity. Not only did we try to find a product’s unique selling proposition but also to magnify its best advantage. We spent a lot of money on aesthetic film production, because the French are publiphobe and don’t like advertising, so we decided to make the films as if they were small movies.  

Is this what made you famous? 

We were famous for taking unusual routes. For example, Heineken, which was a very small brand in France, what they call airport beer, wanted to invest in France. Instead of what you always see, three or four friends sharing a good moment and a beer together, I presented one single individual who only talked about the quality of the beer and its personality. It was a tremendous success. 

How do you make a decision like that, one which goes against the tide?  

We do a lot of research; and I am a contrarian, always looking for the other side. Instead of out-investing the competition, it’s much better to outsmart the competition by finding a different way to speak about the product – car, furniture, shampoo, whatever it is. We launched L’Oréal’s Garnier Fructis brand outdoors. Rather than you washing your hair privately at home it was a bunch of happy young people, outside washing their hair. This caught the attention of the youth market, and all the new young customers came to us.  

Is innovation a Publicis quality? 

Yes. Giants like Havas owned the market when Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet decided to create Publicis. He had to be cleverer, more original, more creative, and innovate all the time. He had imported polls from Gallup but also, later on at the beginning of the 60s, he created a department based on semiology, the science of signs. It is not just a product, a suit or a tie, that people are buying, but signs that represent their personality.  

How did you get into advertising?  

By accident. I’m an engineer and I joined an agency to run their computer department at age 24. I wrote what today we would call an algorithm, a model for measuring the audience, simulating what a marketing plan could be and how we should be using the media at the cheapest price with the best possible audience. This was something so new that the account people took me to their clients to speak about it, who were surprised to see this young guy with long hair and jeans. They loved creativity and I was always trying to find new ideas.  

How did you move from that agency to Publicis? 

One Monday morning in February 1971, the Chairman of that agency invited me for lunch. He told me that the CEO was going to retire in June, and that at the board meeting on Friday they had all agreed that the best person to succeed him was me. I looked at him. I was 29. It was an agency of 350 people”. Why me?” I said, and he replied, “Simply because we all agree that you are the best in the agency.” I heard myself saying, “If, at 29, I’m the best, I’m in the wrong agency because I am not going to learn any more.” I resigned, and a few days later I got a call from Publicis to run their IT department, which oversees the installation and maintenance of computer network systems within the company. The man in charge, who was second in command at Publicis, said to me, “Listen, I have taken responsibility for IT but I don’t have a clue about it and there is a 90% chance that we will fail. Do you want to fail with me?” This challenge is the kind of proposal you can’t refuse.  

But you did not fail? 

We had tremendous success, and, when the building caught fire it was fortunate that we had changed the system, because that system saved the company. Then Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet asked me to take more client responsibility, and made me CEO of the main agency.

I am a contrarian, always looking for the other side.

Maurice Lévy, how did you open Publicis to the world?  

When I was named CEO in 1987 we were in total 6,000 people, mainly in France. We were only in 11 countries and not in the top 20 global agencies. I had lunch with a global client, with whom we had a great relationship, and he said, “We have more than 100 agencies in the world, far too many. We will bring that to four global agencies.” I understood that we would not be part of the four, and I said, “Give me two months and I will come back to you.”  

What did you do? 

Scratch my head and try to find a solution. Two months later I sat down with him again, on 15th August, because he wanted to announce the decision by the last week of August. When I said, “I have a solution,” he said, “Before you speak I will show you something.” He took a piece of paper out of his pocket, showed me the alignment of the four agencies and said, “You are here. I knew that you would bring a solution. Now tell me about it.”  

What was your solution? 

Very simple. We built an alliance with the CEO of Foote, Cone & Belding Communications, FCB, a strong US agency and also strong in Latin America. In Europe we were much stronger than they were. So that client and all my clients were supported, and I convinced Marcel that this was the right thing to do and that now we needed to invest heavily and become a global agency.  

What happened next? 

FCB wanted to take us over and they behaved very badly. When we won a dispute that went to arbitration by demonstrating that we were acting in good faith and they were not, we decided to create our own global network, but Marcel unfortunately died in April 1996. I worked extremely hard, and in September ‘96 made a trip to Montreal to announce the acquisition of an agency I had bought there. Then I went to Mexico and announced the acquisition of an agency there. Then I went to Sao Paolo and announced the Sao Paolo acquisition. Then I went to Singapore, then to Manila, and then to Bangkok, etc… It was an incredible journey, I was acquiring two or three agencies per month.  

How did you operate in each different country?  

With globalization, the trend was to build global campaigns in order for the client to send exactly the same message to everyone on the planet. I was not sure that a global campaign was the right thing. It could work fine for some very top-level brands, jewellery, watches, Rolex, etcetera, but when it comes to food, coffee, or the way you sell a powder detergent or shampoo you have to address the diversity of the people. Each country and culture is different, we should accept the differences of the people and it should be something which we celebrate. We went on that concept of “viva la difference!”  

Did your clients understand this? 

I told clients that their international campaigns would only scratch the surface, that the people who are at the same level of education and a bit westernized will understand what you are doing, but when you go deep in the country you will have some difficulties. For Coca-Cola in Russia we went to Russia with a research team for six weeks and came back with some criteria to decide what would be the best approach. It multiplied sales by three or four, and Coca-Cola gave us all European countries.  

Who are some of your other clients?  

Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, Renault, Stellantis, GM, Bank of America, Samsung. When we started to work with Samsung they were manufacturing a lot of telephones, but not yet at the level of a global leader.  

Has the advertising world changed a lot since you started?  

There are a lot of things which have changed; society, culture, music, movies, technology. Only one thing has not changed, which is the human input on the idea. 

What value do you personally add to the Publicis group? 

It is probably in three areas. The first is vision, the second leadership, and the last is to pick the right people. I have been involved in many campaigns, but my key role has been much more about strategy and execution. To build a long future, you need the combination of vision, strategy and execution.

Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy  in his office at Publicis in 1980

Maurice Lévy

A screenshot of Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Publicis Groupe

Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy with Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister and President of Israel

Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy at the 2011 G8 Summit

Maurice Lévy

Maurice Lévy, John Kerry, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and IBM’s Ginni Rometty at the 2020 Tech for Good Summit, an initiative of the French Presidency.

Our mantra is: No silo. No solo. No bozo.”

Maurice Lévy, how do you keep track of change and stay on top of it?  

With a permanent rejuvenation of your workforce. You need to have people who understand the new languages, the new habits, and you have to make this work with the older people who have a better understanding of the mechanism of advertising. My most complicated task was how to bring together the technologists, the engineers, the data analysts, all those people who are left brain, with the creative right brains. Communication between the two is very complicated, and the way to bring them together has been to change our organization.  

What did you change? 

Our organization, which had been extremely successful, and which was that of the industry, was to work in silos: the media agency, the creative agency, the promotion agency, the digital agency and so on. In 2015, I invited my COMEX, the Executive Committee, to work on how to improve, to be more effective, more efficient, more productive, more creative, how to bring all these things together and what the future organization should be. We started with roughly 20 people, then we added 50 people, then we added another layer and we ended up in a seminar for a full week at the end of September 2015 with the roughly 250 executives who run the company. Then we added 50 young executives at the age of 29/30, and then we added millennials, aged below 25. We invited some great people to come and explain the new world: Sergey Brin from Google; the CTO of Facebook; Marc Andreessen from Andreessen Horowitz; a professor of change management at Harvard Business School. At the end of the seminar the most formidable ideas came from the millennials, and the most important idea was The Power of One.  

What is The Power of One?  

We realized that if we didn’t bring all our many assets together in a seamless way for a client, the client would not benefit from them. And internally people were competing instead of working in the same direction, so we killed internal competition. We broke down the silos. Our mantra is: No silo. No solo. No bozo.  

How can you make sure that everyone in your organization embraces the future? 

Goethe said, human beings are animals of habit, so the question is how you can change habits without creating a huge problem and generating anxiety where people say, “What will happen to me? It is a new world, and I’m not prepared for that new world.” There is an advertising population who come from the myth that the way people get an idea is by smoking a cigarette, by having a glass of whisky, and then suddenly they had the idea. You have to upskill and reskill those people and make sure that they understand this new world of tech, digital, internet, data analysis, predictive artificial intelligence, in a way which is confident so they don’t feel that this world is aggressive to them. That is the most important challenge that we have.  

Is advertising a good world for young people to enter?  

I’m probably the wrong guy to give any advice because I’m so passionate about this industry and I love it because we are working on something which is human, speaking about feelings, passion, perception, reaction, behaviour, attitudes. When we do a campaign we try to change the behaviour of some people and to make that change of behaviour into an action, which action is to buy a product that we want to sell. But at the same time, if we do it properly, we deliver a message which is much broader, which is about human values, which is about the future. We can use our talents to do good, and to help improve the state of the world. This industry is absolutely fantastic!  

Is passion the key to your own success?  

I have never, ever in my life thought about my career, what I will do next. If you want a career plan this job is not for you. If you want surprises, something unexpected, to work passionately with clients, with consumers, with artists, come with us; and be daring. If I was not daring Publicis would still be a superb French agency, a magnificent one because Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet created something which was magnificent, but we would not be what we are today: one of the most valued holding companies in our field.  

What do you like most about your job? 

The joy I feel when I see work which changes the course of action of the brand and offers the consumer a satisfaction beyond the use of that product.

Thank you very much for your time and for being with us.