Naouri’s path to the top at Publicis leaves Pinder stranded

This week, a famous media-oriented company, family-built yet globally traded, publicly acknowledged its succession strategy. No, it’s not NewsCorp I’m talking of here (though it certainly fits the description), but Publicis Groupe.

It seems that my tentative question of over a year ago – Will Jean-Yves Naouri be the next ceo of Publicis Groupe? – has been strongly answered in the affirmative.

Little alternative interpretation can be placed on Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy’s statement to the Financial Times that Naouri “is clearly in a leading position for winning the race” to taking over as chief executive when he himself departs in “a few more years.”

As it happens, Publicis insiders have long since been placing their bets on Naouri, albeit with a few reservations about his candidature. Like any leader-in-waiting, Naouri has gradually been acquiring the instruments of power. He’s on the Groupe senior management board, he’s its chief operating officer and, thanks to his reputation as an experienced trouble-shooter, he’s been given “special powers” to shore up Publicis’ strategic weakness (relatively speaking) in China.

However, what marks out his transition from heir presumptive to heir apparent is the decision to install him as executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide. This really is entrusting the heir with the crown jewels. It means putting Naouri very much in the public eye, by letting him run a high-profile creative network.

Not any high-profile creative network, either. It is the Groupe’s flagship – quintessentially Gallic yet global – and very much Lévy’s personal fiefdom.

That is certainly one explanation for why, under first Rick Bendel and then Richard Pinder, it has effectively been run by chief operating officers rather than a formal CEO. In effect, it didn’t need one, since Lévy kept a watchful but fatherly eye on its activities.

Publicis has, of course, been here before. In 2006, Lévy poached Olivier Fleurot, a former FT Group chief executive, as executive chairman of the creative network, at the same time that Pinder was brought in as COO. Then, as now, the honorific appointment gave rise to speculation that Lévy was grooming his successor. However, by Spring 2009 Fleurot had moved off the boil (or at least off the board): to head the holding company’s PR operations, leaving Pinder soldiering on alone at Publicis Worldwide – with effective responsibility for the network, but not full empowerment.

This being so, it is understandable why Pinder should choose to quit now. Being British in a top French company is not quite the barrier to top-flight promotion it might appear at first sight – as David Jones’ recent elevation at Havas Groupe demonstrates. Even so, the odds on Pinder being further promoted – despite his successful 5-year tenure at Publicis Worldwide – seemed remote. In effect, the appointment of Naouri was the coup de grâce to his career advancement. It’s a loss for Publicis, too, because the relentlessly itinerant Pinder gave the network a genuinely cosmopolitan aura.

As far as I can make out, the parting has been amicable enough: Lévy appears to have been keen for Pinder to stay on; and was financially generous when it became apparent he would not. Pinder seems to have a clear idea of what he wants to do next, though what that is I do not know.

Anyway, back to Naouri. Is there any reason to suppose that he may suffer the same fate as Fleurot? Not really. For one thing, time is pressing in a way it was not back in 2006. Lévy is now in “extra time” as group CEO, and shareholders will want a definitive solution sooner rather than later. True, Naouri still has to be anointed by the most important shareholder of them all, Elisabeth Badinter (daughter of Publicis’ founder and the single-biggest stakeholder). But that’s beginning to seem more and more a formality as the alternatives ebb away. The job is now Naouri’s to lose, not someone else’s to win.

The more interesting question is: what will happen to Lévy himself when Naouri is formally given the top job. Will he really retire?

As a candidate, Naouri certainly ticks many boxes. He comes from the right French social and educational background. His relationship with Dominique Strauss-Kahn could be invaluable, should the current managing director of the IMF ever run for president (polls indicate he would beat Nicolas Sarkozy). But charismatic he is not.

The possibility therefore exists that Lévy might be asked to stay on in some capacity. Perhaps as lifetime president.

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