Levy hosted a confab in London (significant in itself as PG is really an Anglo-Saxon company these days) at which he promised two things.
The first was that he would have stepped down by 2018 (by which time he will be 76) and installed a successor. But 2018 is hardly around the corner, so that won’t bring much joy to the long list of internal candidates, headed by COO Jean-Yves Naouri.
The second is that PG will spend about $4bn over the next five years, mainly on a string (a bloody long one by the sounds of it) of digital companies, mainly in emerging markets. His plan is for digital (PG already owns Digitas, Razorfish, Rosetta and LBi among many others) to account for 75 per cent of the company’s turnover by 2018.
Now this is ambitious in the extreme – unless PG wildly overpays, which presumably isn’t the plan. There are loads of digital agencies around but not many with the scale PG needs to unload its cash. And there is always the small matter of Levy’s arch enemy, WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, who is equally intent on dominating what he too sees as the emerging digital world.
And, over the past few years, Sorrell has actually done more agency deals than Levy: nearly 40 last year as opposed to Levy’s 20 or so. WPP bought AKQA for $540m, about what Levy subsequently paid for LBi.
So why is digital so popular with Levy and Sorrell anyway? Apart from their shared perception that it’s the way the world is trending.
Surely it’s because they see it as a way of escaping from the tyranny of the client: someone who pays you a fee or commission (as little as possible of course) and is always likely to shunt the business somewhere else.
If you’re producing, essentially, software and also trading media on your own account (as both do with their digital ad exchanges and WPP also does with out of home giant Kinetic) then clients become just a part of the overall trade; someone you sell to rather than work for.
Which is surely one reason why they both want giant companies so desperately – to look even the biggest advertisers and media owners in the eye.