Headmaster's Report on Publicis Bosses: 'Could Do Better!'

13 July 2006

Publicis Groupe chairman/ceo Maurice Lévy fixed more than 130 of the group's senior executives with a stern headmasterly eye at a specially convened gathering in Paris last month.

Delivering what seemed to some attendees very much like an end of semester report, Lévy's verdict was a brusque "could do better".

What prompted this unusual event is unknown. However, it might have been triggered by a recent note circulated by Bear Sterns analyst Tim Nollen.

This named Publicis as the worst performer among the top-five global agency holding companies for winning and retaining accounts during the five months to the end of May. [WPP Group was top dog.]

The Paris-headquartered group, Lévy told his troops, suffered from a bureaucracy created to "satisfy egos", and was hindered by a "silo mentality" that hurt clients. He pulled no punches, according to a copy of his speech obtained this week by the Wall Street Journal.

"We need to dramatically change our attitude, our behavior and the way we work," Lévy admonished. "How do we stop confusing clients with contradictory points of view coming from teams each defending their little piece of turf - to the detriment of the clients' interests - not to mention the group's interests?"

However, when interviewed Tuesday by the WSJ, Lévy was in calmer mode. He was trying to ensure, he said, that Publicis didn't become "self satisfied"; also to provoke management into thinking about how to deal with the changes occurring in society, business and the media.

"The best way to do that is to ask the hard questions and ask people not to be politically correct," he said. "We have to be the fastest growing and have to be the one leading the profession."

Levy named Omnicom as Publicis's most important competitor "because of its sheer size and the successful way they handle talent." He also warned that the rapid growth of the internet could lead to an unexpected competitor muscling-in on the advertising industry - Google for example.

Conscious, perhaps, that diplomacy is a skill appreciated by an unhappy boss, one of the gathering's attendees, Leo Burnett EMEA president Richard Pinder, told the WSJ Lévy had reassured the meeting it need not worry "about the politics of making comments."

"It was all about how we should organize the group, what new business models we should go into and how we're going to continue to grow," Pinder said.

Over one hundred ideas emerged from the brainstorming session and were then were whittled down to ten. Of which seven evaded the chairman's veto. Pindar was understandably reluctant to divulge the gist of the surviving notions.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff