FORCE MAJEURE

As he ‘divorces’ US partner True North, and confronts speculation of conflict with M&C Saatchi, Publicis chairman Maurice Lévy gives ample proof of his legendary determination. Tom O’ Sullivan reports

“I hate politicians because they are liars. I hate that environment and if I can avoid it I will be happy”

Maurice Lévy likes a fight. In fact at every possible opportunity the Publicis Group chairman and chief executive enthuses about how much he enjoys a good ruck. But more than fighting Lévy clearly enjoys winning and he believes that last week he won the 12-month fight with Publicis’ erstwhile US partner, True North/FCB, for control of its European joint venture.

But while the French pugilist relishes his reputation for being explosive, his smile deserts him when asked about suggestions his combativeness has led to a conflict with Maurice Saatchi, the man who selected Lévy in a Blind Date-style auction to collaborate on and land the 60m British Airways account last May.

The story has the two men quarrelling. There is little consensus among the storytellers about the reason for the row but the relative size of the Publicis share of the BA business has been mentioned. The story is founded on wishful thinking on the part of rival agencies but no less in the probability that combustible Maurice will run out of patience with his equally opinionated UK namesake.

“There is no problem between Maurice and me,” Lévy says. “I am always amazed by the amount of speculation on the London advertising scene but that story has no grounds.”

One French source explains why the story may have gained momentum. “He has the same presence in the French market as Maurice Saatchi has in the UK. He has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly especially when people are being ‘difficult’ – usually saying that something cannot be done.”

The alliance between Publicis and True North, created in 1988, is a good example of Lévy’s patience wearing thin. The relationship has been on the rocks since 1993 but came to a head in January 1995 when Publicis unilaterally announced it was divorcing its partner, FCB Communications, after it changed its name to True North. Lévy cited a difference of strategic direction in the divorce proceedings.

The acrimonious dispute ended up in London’s court of arbitration. But before the big day in court the two sides agreed to try negotiations. These finished on New Year’s eve. A further two-month period to patch up differences was agreed but that, too, came to an end last Thursday.

For Lévy, the key issue in the protracted talks has been ownership of the European joint venture company Publicis-FCB, which he runs and in which Publicis holds a 51 per cent stake. It accounted for almost 40 per cent of True North’s profits last year and, not surprisingly, chairman Bruce Mason wanted control. Lévy said late last year that he would “burn the earth” rather than surrender control.

His scorched earth policy worked. Lévy now describes True North as a “dormant” partner, although on reflection he changes that to the slightly more diplomatic description of “investor” in the joint venture.

The impression he creates is unmistakable. Publicis is in control and True North has been demoted to a sleeping partner. Unsurprisingly, this view is not shared by True North.

Later this month, the Publicis Group will report estimated profits of Fr150m (19.4m), a 20 per cent increase on 1994, from revenues of Fr3.6bn (467m). An income growth of six per cent in a European market which is experiencing average growth of one per cent underlines that Publicis has had a good year adding BA, and more work from the likes of Coca-Cola, Nestlé and L’Oréal to its existing business.

“I am trying to do my job with anger, or fighting spirit if you prefer,” says Lévy. “I see every campaign as a fight. For example, when we launch a new car we are trying to steal share and so we are the enemy of everyone else in the market. We have been fighting True North for eight months but the alliance is now at an end. We are in control of the joint venture.”

The final parting from True North – “we are still on speaking terms” – makes a closer relationship with M&C Saatchi an option. But Publicis will be looking for an agency with more of a US presence and Lévy claims there are no plans to formalise the relationship further.

The strength of the Saatchi relationship will depend on retaining the BA account. The year contract ends next month, renewing industry speculation that BA will review.

“There will be an evaluation but I am not aware of specific changes at the moment. You should ask BA,” says Lévy.

While it represents less than one per cent of the Group’s six per cent revenue growth last year, BA is highly important psychologically for Publicis – and Lévy. The UK agency has been ambivalent about its French roots and insiders admit that there has been internal debate about its positioning; winning BA has made it less concerned that its Frenchness might be a problem.

“We are French, we don’t have a complex about it, but we know the perception of French advertising is that it is not as rigorous as it might be. The fact that we were chosen by BA is a kind of recognition of our standards,” says Lévy. “We have much larger clients than BA but we have never had as much press as we received after winning that account.”

Lévy joined Publicis Conseil in 1971 and handled its database and information technology interests. Fortunately for him he quickly impressed “Mr Publicis”, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and became the successor-in-waiting to the man who founded Publicis in 1926.

Lévy finally took overall control in 1988 and now describes the spirit of the agency as ethical, iconoclastic and creative – words used by critics and supporters to describe Lévy. His priorities, he says, are growth, profitability but above all creative advertising, which is when he plucks another familiar word from his vocabulary, “passionate”.

“I am very loyal to Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet and to the spirit of the company he created. If one day I leave the industry I will have to do something that is passionate; without passion things have no interest. If I can’t, something inside of me will die.”

The only thing he rules out is a move into politics, which surprises some observers. “In the UK, Maurice Saatchi knows everybody who matters in politics and business,” says one Lévy fan. “Lévy is the same in France. He is part of that link between business and politics.”

If that is true, Lévy is clearly not happy about his part in the chain. “I hate politicians because they are liars. I hate that environment and if I can avoid it I will be happy.”

He says Publicis resigned all its work for the Italian state because of corruption and claims that expansion in Spain was delayed until after last weekend’s general election. A speech to the French Chamber of Commerce in London on the future of Europe last week further underlined his contempt for politicians. He cited the christening of the “Euro” as one reason why they should be excluded from branding decisions.

Lévy once wanted to be a surgeon but the sight of blood made him faint. It is ironic that a man who prides himself on his fighting spirit, and has a reputation for being prepared to battle for his beliefs, is re-markably squeamish. Few who have had run-ins with Monsieur Lévy will recognise that fear of blood.

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