A successor to Maurice Lévy? Yes, but no, but maybe

These days, we’ve come to see Maurice Lévy, chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe, as something of an oracle. Every time the 70-year-old eminence grise makes one of his ceremonial public appearances – ostensibly to observe the religious rites of the financial year – we strain our ears for words of greater meaning, expertly hidden between the monotonous reporting lines.

This year’s halfway performance was no disappointment. In themselves, the figures were not terribly exciting. Organic growth of 2.8% and a 19% uplift in income were a perfectly respectable outcome, given that the Eurozone economy has developed blackspot and Publicis had lost the General Motors account. Clearly the BRICs and MISSATs (as we must now refer to Mexico, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa and Turkey) must be doing rather well to make up the averages. And – hidden gem – Britain seems to be uncharacteristically up among them – for now at any rate – since it posted a 4.1% increase in growth.

But all this numerical incantation was historical stuff, and not what we actually wanted to hear. What was M. Lévy’s outlook for the global advertising economy? The downward trend between the first and second quarters would halt. Much higher growth could be expected in the third quarter, starting right now. Phew!

And what of Dentsu’s acquisition of Aegis Group, what did he think of that? “The price is extremely full,” he opined in true oracular fashion. “It’s a nice acquisition for Dentsu.” But not for anyone else, we were led to believe. Not at least for anyone with a head for figures. And certainly not for Publicis Groupe, which had done something infinitely more sensible with a full buyout of BBH.

And the Publicis Groupe succession (which is all we really wanted to hear about) – any progress on that? Here M. Lévy outdid himself in Delphic obscurity and double meaning. Yes, a successor to himself would emerge. In September. Or was that just the beginning of the process? It rather looked like it: “In September the board will start the process.” Hold on a minute, hadn’t this “process” been going on for several years now? Why did it need to “begin” in September?

But, a successor would be found, wouldn’t he? Think of those poor clients and investors waiting anxiously for reassurance.

Yes, he had his preferred private candidate, but he wasn’t going to disclose their identity to anyone else. That was a matter for the board.

So, we’ll take that as full confidence in Jean-Yves Naouri, PG’s chief operating officer and Publicis Worldwide CEO whose name Lévy had let slip during an earlier ritual occasion? Well, possibly. Unless it was to be Arthur Sadoun, managing director of Publicis Worldwide. Or maybe Simon Badinter, grandson of the company’s founder – and more crucially, perhaps, son of its most important shareholder, Elisabeth Badinter, without whose approval no Lévy successor could be anointed.

But we could be clear on one thing, couldn’t we – M. Lévy himself would be vacating his See? Ah! Well, yes and no: “The first and most important thing is the depth and breadth of the teams at Publicis is such that my presence is almost non-important. I think it’s very important that there’s a succession plan and I’m doing everything I can, with a fantastic team, to make sure that no one who entrusts us with their confidence will be disappointed – our clients, our people, our investors,” he said with studied contradiction. Someone “almost non-important” needs a successor, eh?

Let’s get this straight then. A candidate does exist. It’s Jean-Yves Naouri, who has been working like a Stakhanovite to prove his mettle. But doubts remain about his suitability. Is La Badinter any more enthusiastic about “the approved candidate” than when his name first emerged over two years ago? Probably not, but she’s going to have to face up to reality soon, because there’s no obvious alternative to be found. Unless, of course, we’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps there won’t be a single successor. Maybe Naouri will be installed with a junior partner at his side – conceivably the more charismatic Sadoun. And just to be absolutely certain the glue sticks, Maurice Lévy won’t be leaving any time soon. He won’t be président directeur-général any longer, of course. Just life president. After all, the one thing he did unambiguously tell us was: “It’s my life and I don’t intend to simply leave the company. Whatever happens to me I will always support Publicis and help Publicis as long as Publicis will need me; in whatever capacity Publicis will need me. And that is clear.”

Yes, for once, it is.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK’s leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.

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