On the MIC with Maurice Lévy, chairman and CEO, Publicis Groupe SA, Paris

Maurice Lévy is recognized internationally as an innovator and visionary, and under his stewardship Publicis Groupe become the fourth largest communications group and the second largest media group in the world. International expansion has been active over the past 10 years, including a move into Canada with the purchase of 70% of Montreal-based BCP in 1996 and Toronto-based SMW the following year. Lévy joined Publicis in 1971, and since taking the CEO remit in '84 has been busy acquiring a full range of marketing services and specialized communications companies. Publicis Groupe now owns ad agency networks Leo Burnett, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Fallon Worldwide and 49% of Bartle Bogle Hegarty as well as media orgs ZenithOptimedia and Starcom MediaVest Group. MIC took the opportunity to get some of Lévy's thoughts on the agency business when he was in Toronto last week as keynote speaker at the annual Canadian Media Directors' Council conference.

Maurice Lévy is recognized internationally as an innovator and visionary, and under his stewardship Publicis Groupe become the fourth largest communications group and the second largest media group in the world. International expansion has been active over the past 10 years, including a move into Canada with the purchase of 70% of Montreal-based BCP in 1996 and Toronto-based SMW the following year. Lévy joined Publicis in 1971, and since taking the CEO remit in ’84 has been busy acquiring a full range of marketing services and specialized communications companies. Publicis Groupe now owns ad agency networks Leo Burnett, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, Fallon Worldwide and 49% of Bartle Bogle Hegarty as well as media orgs ZenithOptimedia and Starcom MediaVest Group. MIC took the opportunity to get some of Lévy’s thoughts on the agency business when he was in Toronto last week as keynote speaker at the annual Canadian Media Directors’ Council conference.

MIC: The lines between various media are really starting to blur. Recently in the U.S., Publicis Groupe set up the Denuo futures practice (headed by Rishad Tobaccowala) and the MediaVest TV planning/buying group was reorganized into the Video Investment and Activation (VIA) unit. How can agencies best deal with the fluid media environment of today and should all the specialty media units be merged together again?

Lévy: The most important thing (for agencies) is to get all of the people working together. The structure in which they work is less relevant, so what we need to do is think about the best approach to connect with the consumer.

Funnily enough, when we now approach holistic communications the first workshop is the connecting workshop so we work much earlier on the way to communicate to the consumer rather than the message itself – because the message can be different according to the nature of the media you are using. We have always invested a lot of time and energy on media and we will continue to do that. We don’t believe that the structural approach of our operation is relevant. What is relevant is how we can get the message to the consumer in the most efficient and effective way, at the cheapest price with the best return for our clients. If for this we have to turn our organization upside down, we will do it. Definitely and immediately.

MIC: There has been some talk (at the CMDC conference) that although media agencies are doing well at selecting media channels, the creative side is slipping.

Lévy: One of the issues advertising agencies faced in the past was that there was above the line and below the line and creative as the most important thing. Obviously you had all the people working in marketing services feeling very bad because it was not only below the line, it was below the people. In our world I think there is nothing that is more important than sharing. We consider that strategy is very important, creative is very important, media is very important. Every technique of communication is important and none more important than the other. Sometimes just a leaflet can make a difference. And a leaflet shouldn’t be given to juniors because it is considered ‘just a leaflet’, because at the end of the day, the consumer will see it and read it, so it is important that it is treated with the same attention that we are giving a TV spot or communications for the Internet. The idea that there is some kind of hierarchy in the communications world is old fashioned. We are fighting to emerge against all these clichés and approaches because it belongs to a different world.

MIC: Clients are putting more time, attention, and media dollars into mobile, podcasting, online efforts, sponsorships and placed-based media in order to get closer to consumers. This is all less expensive than putting the bulk into TV advertising. How is the agency business coping financially now that the 15% to 20% commission on media buys has gone the way of the dinosaur?

Lévy: Let’s face the reality – the reality that the world is more complex, the audience is more fragmented, and that the consumers are everywhere and nowhere, and to track the consumer is very difficult. So we as ad agencies have to work on all aspects of communications and it’s clear there are some that are more rewarding (monetarily) than others. We have to figure out how we will change our business model and we are already changing. I think one of the things that is making Publicis successful is that we are one of the freshest holding companies in the world with new thinking, new approaches. If you look at the way ideas travel within the Publicis Groupe and the way people share information, you would be very surprised. We are not thinking of the old model as something we should do. We don’t hesitate to hire different kinds of people. We are revering efficiencies. We are revering cultures and differences. We don’t hesitate to put our organization upside down.