Company: Publicis Groupe
Year Named CEO: 1987
Company employees: 44,727
12-month adjusted stock performance: –7.25 percent
Compensation: €3.4 million ($4.8 million)
There is a reason Maurice Lévy has been called the Napoleon of advertising. During his 22 years as CEO of Publicis Groupe, Lévy has made more than 60 acquisitions, transforming what was a modest French firm into the fourth-largest advertising empire in the world. From his office overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris, he commands a network of international advertising agencies and media-buying companies that are heavyweights in their own right: Leo Burnett Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi and ZenithOptimedia, to name a few.
Lévy, a passionate art collector and hunter of “strange and bizarre objects” in Paris flea markets, has no time to dwell on his achievements, though. The current economic storm has the Frenchman focusing squarely on steering his company through treacherous waters. Lévy now gets to work an hour earlier each day, at 6 a.m., to “have time to think.” He is also delegating less, to get closer to clients. “I have more contact and a better personal understanding of the client’s situation,” he says.
The CEO is also putting an emphasis on cost-cutting. His steps range from the obvious — a freeze on hiring and cutbacks in the use of freelance staffers — to the more innovative, such as dismantling the company’s sprawling special agencies and marketing services division to streamline hierarchies. “I am working more and spending more time on details which in the past I would have delegated, and I am spending a lot more time on costs than I was 18 months ago,” says Lévy.
The efforts are paying off. Although many of its clients were getting hammered by the financial turbulence, Publicis managed to eke out a slight, 0.7 percent, growth in revenues last year, to €4.7 billion; net income dipped 1.1 percent, to €447 million. In the first quarter of 2009, the company reported a 1.3 percent increase in revenue. Maintaining growth will be a challenge, though. In February the group predicted that global advertising spending would decline by 7 percent this year.
Lévy has more than the economy to worry about. The advertising industry is in the midst of a shift away from conventional media to the online world. Publicis has been moving quickly to adapt. In 2007 the company began collaborating with Google in online advertising technology. Last year it launched a new platform called VivaKi that gives clients one-stop shopping for a range of digital services. The company is developing a new online video-advertising format in collaboration with AOL, CBS, Discovery Channel, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo!. And Lévy has opened his checkbook: In November he acquired Tribal, a leading digital agency in Brazil, and in April he bought Nemos, a Swiss digital interactive agency.
The ramping up of digital advertising is paying off. In the first quarter of this year, digital activities accounted for 20.5 percent of Publicis’ total revenues of €1.08 billion, up from 17.6 percent a year earlier.
“Publicis has done an excellent job in leading the way into digital services and seems best positioned to take advantage of the trend in advertising away from traditional channels to the Internet,” says one investor from a major U.S. pension fund.