Maurice Lévy bats Naouri’s leadership credentials into the long grass

Jean-Yves Naouri has a great future behind him as the next leader of Publicis Groupe. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out Publicis’ H1 earnings call, which group chief Maurice Lévy used as a platform to “deep-six” Naouri’s much-touted candidature into the long grass.

Naouri, it will be recalled, had acquired much of the symbolism of a leader-in-waiting: explicit blessing by Lévy but, more materially, a special executive role to sort out the group’s muddled affairs in China. And, most recently, he has added to this list with his appointment as executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide, the group’s most prestigious network; an event that triggered the resignation of long-serving chief operating officer Richard Pinder.

Lévy is now regretting his earlier enthusiasm. Either that or the all-powerful supervisory board, headed by principal shareholder and daughter-of-the-founder Elisabeth Badinter, has rejected the graft.

At all events, Lévy has made it abundantly clear he is looking at alternatives. According to AdAge, Lévy is spending time with “a few people” without letting them know he is monitoring them (that bit I rather doubt): “I’m training more than one person because I don’t want only one horse in the race. It is my responsibility to give the board many options,” he tells us.

Who might these dark “horses” be? Two candidates come to mind.

The first is Arthur Sadoun. Sadoun, about 40, has been president and chief executive of Publicis France for some time but, in a highly significant move this spring, his role was expanded when he was elevated to managing director of the network – with direct responsibility for operations in Western Europe (meaning Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Holland as well as France).

Sadoun ticks many of the boxes for Publicis leadership. He is a quintessential part of the moneyed, French elite. A graduate of the European Business School and an INSEAD MBA, he is also admirably well connected – not least through his glamorous wife Anne-Sophie Lapix, a leading French television presenter.

That may make him sound like a Naouri clone. Not so. Sadoun is also an accredited entrepreneur and an adman of some flair. After graduating from EBS in his early twenties, he moved to Chile where he set up his own agency – later sold to BBDO. Returning to France in 1997, he joined TBWA\Paris and in 2003 became CEO. Under his management, TBWA\Paris received the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival ‘Agency of the Year’ Award 4 years in a row. Spookily, he replicated this success with Publicis Conseil – to which he made a sideways move in 2006 – for 3 years running. Say what you like, M. Sadoun is a man who gets things done.

That’s my 7/1 on bet. A darker horse still – say 19/1 – is Simon Badinter. Badinter, 43, comes enormously well pre-packaged as the aforesaid Elisabeth Badinter’s elder son. Badinter mère is married to eminent lawyer and former justice minister now senator Robert. Besides being the company’s heavy-hitting shareholder, she is an intellectual celebrity in her own right. (A point she would no doubt heavily underscore, being one of France’s leading feminists to boot.) Nepotism in a French public company is not the barrier to advancement it might be in Anglo-Saxon economies (the Murdochs being the trying exception to prove that rule). A fact perhaps reflected in Simon Badinter’s long-term presence on Publicis Groupe’s supervisory board, despite his relative youth.

Against him, his hands-on experience is hardly the match of Sadoun’s, or even Naouri’s. He was installed as chairman and chief executive of Medias & Regies Europe – Publicis’ airtime and space sales house – in 2003. But a good deal of his time since has been spent in the USA, to the extent that he was recently made a US citizen. Earlier this year, he handed over his M&R Euro responsibilities to kid brother Benjamin, 40, and took on US duties in their place. To cap this Yankophilia, Simon is an enthusiastic amateur radio star. He recently quit as host of “Simon Rendezvous”, a Sunday night slot broadcast by Chicago-based WGN-AM, to take up a similar role at Boston’s WTKK-FM.

So, Lévy does indeed have “options” other than the colourless Naouri. What he will do with them remains to be seen. He himself seems keen not to outstay his extended welcome: “My board would like me to stay for a full term (ie 4 more years), which is not something I am prepared to do. I prefer for it (the settlement of the succession issue) to happen now.” Well, not now perhaps, but very soon. Lévy, as he has hinted, would like to sort out the vexed issue of the 10% or so of the company still owned by increasingly disconsolate Dentsu. A share buy-back early next year seems on the cards.

Then he can go. If he really wants to.

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