People in the advertising
business who have not seen “Avatar” should resign immediately.
Maurice Lévy is the chief executive of Publicis,
the world’s fourth-biggest global advertising holding. Born in
1942 in the Moroccan town of Oujda, Lévy joined Publicis in
Paris in 1971. In 1972, a fire broke out in the office and he
risked life and limb to rush back in to save the Publicis
computer records. This beyond-the-call-of-duty commitment to the
company paid off handsomely in 1987 when the then owner and
chief executive of Publicis, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, made him
his successor. Today, Lévy is one of the most powerful figures
in the advertising world, employing 39,000 people in 109
countries. His company owns four international advertising
agency networks – Publicis, Leo Burnett, Fallon, and Saatchi &
Saatchi, as well as media buying agencies Zenith Optimedia and
Starcom. Lévy also has a 49 per cent share in BBH. Eighteen
years ago, Hermann Vaske went to Paris to see Maurice Lévy, who
hired him as Executive Creative Director. Almost two decades
later, Vaske came back to the Publicis headquarters on the
Champs Élysées to talk to CEO Maurice Lévy about his
extraordinary career and his interest in digital creativity.
L.A.: Let’s start by
talking about digital ad-vertising. What relevance, with you
running one of the world’s most successful communication
networks, does a platform like YouTube have for advertisers
Maurice Lévy: YouTube
is a very cool platform. It’s something where you can find all
kinds of stuff – from something weird that you’d better put in a
trash box to things which are absolutely fantastic. A few things
which are very fun, which help the buzz, etc. I think it’s not
only cool to be there, but we should never forget that there is
an audience. And that audience is young people. They love that,
they love to go there, they love to download something, to
forward it to a friend, to do a lot of things. And they think
it’s part of the new pop culture. And it’s really something,
which epitomizes the new pop culture. So, to not be there is
exactly as if you were not going to the movies, as if you did
not know the most important films of the past years. People in
the advertising business who have not seen “Avatar” should
resign immediately. And with the web, it’s exactly the same.
Advertisers have to be there, because it’s important, it’s cool.
L.A.: You said
yourself there is a lot of crap on YouTube. So do advertisers
want to be associated with this? What do you tell your clients
when this concern comes up?
Maurice Lévy: YouTube
is not a glossy magazine with nice pictures, nice photos.
Advertisers should not think that they have to be in a protected
arena. I understand that, when it comes to their own
communication, they have to make sure that the place where they
are communicating is clearly relevant to the people, that it’s
in accord with their strategy. But the place where they have to
be is the place of life. And life is not glossy. Life is what it
is. And when there is some crap on YouTube it’s because, first,
there are some creatives who are crap. Unfortunately, there is a
lot of work that we should not be proud of, we advertising
people. There is a lot of work that even the creative people who
have created it are not proud of. Having said that, it is life,
it is the kind of thing where kids have downloaded their own
thing, where people who are no longer kids but who have the mind
of kids have created some amateur things. They believe it’s a
masterpiece, and yet it’s just a piece of something else. And we
have to be in the middle of what is life. We should not be
protected. We are not sheltered from life.
L.A.: It’s interesting
that you use the word “amateur” because in the French language
there is the connection to the word “aimer,” “to love,” so it’s
not necessarily a bad connotation when you are called an amateur.
“Amateur” has many connotations in French. One is “un travail
d’amateur.” That is negative because it really refers to a lack
of craft, means doing something without knowing how to. So that
– “un travail d’amateur” – is certainly not good. But then you
have “C’est un vrai amateur!” to describe someone who
passionately loves something. And an “amateur” in that sense is
positive. So you have the double meaning and you have to be very
careful. But, yes, “amateur” derives from “aimer” – “to love
something”: “Je suis un grand amateur d’art.” But “Je aime
l’art, mais je ne suis pas capable d’en faire.” – “I love art,
but I am not capable of doing it.” So, as an “amateur,” I love
to see a piece of art but I will not try to create that piece of
art because I know I will create a piece of shit (if you’ll
pardon my French). And the idea that there are a lot of young
people, not necessarily young by age, but young in spirit, who
are trying to co-generate something, who are generating work,
who are downloading work ... I see that as a positive move. I
think it’s self-expression. I think it’s very important because
it’s also how you develop your own personality, how you express
your feelings for, your love, your disappoint-ment about
something. So we should not try to impose rules on the people.
We have enough rules in our lives, for Christ’s
sake – let
them be free.
interesting, the amateur discussion, because I talked to Bernard
Stiegler from the Centre Pompidou Innovation Lab, and his point
also was that Pierre Boulez, Jean-Luc Godard and Charlie Parker
… they all started as amateurs and they had the passion because
they loved what they were doing, you know. And he didn’t find
the “Age of the Amateur” negative at all.
Maurice Lévy: As I
said, you have the double meaning in amateur. I think that being
an amateur in advertising, in the directing of art, in the
direction of movies, is something very positive. Because you
start out as an amateur and you become a professional but the
basis is love, passion. Amateurs have passion. Very often when
you go and you speak to people who are focused on something they
love - “C’est un grand amateur de ...” – that means they have a
passion for it.
L.A.: A “grand amateur
d’art” – that’s what the curator of the Centre Pompidou said
about Dennis Hopper.
Maurice Lévy: Yes, but
I think also there is something which is very French about it.
If we had the Nouvelle Vague and if we still have a very lively
cinema industry, and in this lively cinema industry we are still
able to create by doing non-commercial films, then this is a
result of having really very serious amateurs.
L.A.: Thank God for
that. I know the situation in France is really quite special in
this respect. Now, how can advertising capitalize on this,
because the traditional business is, after all, in a kind of
crisis. Some agencies didn’t get the spirit of the times but
people like you did. How can they take advantage of this whole
new spirit of digital and amateurs?
Maurice Lévy: I
believe that we are approaching a new era. I may be wrong,
because that’s always the risk: if you try to read the future,
you can be wrong. You can’t be wrong if you look at the very
distant future, because it is so distant, that nobody will be
around anymore to tell you that you were wrong. Everyone will
have disappeared. But when you look at what’s happening today in
the digital world, you see that it is affecting the social life
of a whole new generation. And this will last forever. It will
be as important as TV has been for you, for me. We were born
with TV and we grew up with TV, the same way that radio was
important for our fathers, and all of the new approaches to
cinema were for all of us. What is happening with digital is
affecting the way we communicate, the way we are entertained,
the way we create new relationships, we learn, get news, share
news, and build a new social life. And it affects even commerce,
buying, shopping. You can buy or trade, go on vacation, book
hotel rooms through the internet, just by means of a click. If
that is affecting the people so much, we as advertising people
would be fools not to foresee what’s happening and to do not
this, because it will change the way we have to communicate with
people. Not only the channels, not only the fact that we are
going through a new digital channel. That’s fine. Okay, that’s
not enough: it’s also how we communicate. Because, obviously,
you communicate differently. I will give you two or three
examples if I may. One example, which is very simple: cinema.
When you put an ad in the movie theater, there is something
magical that is happening. It’s not an ad that you are watching
by yourself, privately, this is an ad that you are watching with
a few hundred people. You are laughing /not laughing, feeling
/not feeling exactly in the heartbeat with the other people. So
you are sharing a moment together in the same room. This effect
is something that you get only in movie theaters. If you look at
what you are getting on TV, it is in a familiar environment, in
your home, with your family and your wife, your partner, your
kids, your friends. You’re having a drink, watching a football
game. You are seeing that Munich is losing and that the Lions
will be winning. And then there is a break and you have some
commercial that you are sharing. You laugh / you don’t laugh,
you listen/you don’t listen, etc. but you are not focused. But
when you look at a magazine, you have something, which is very
private: it’s for yourself and yourself only. Digital, not only
is it something which is in a very different environment, but
the language is necessarily different. Because the way it is
shared, the way it is looked at and received, is very different.
Obviously, you have to respect the code of communication of your
client and the brand you are advertising. You have to take into
account that there is a channel, there is an audience and there
is a language. And that is fascinating because it is opening a
whole new arena of communication, of creativity, and I think, to
come back to the amateur idea, that the young creative amateur
will bring a lot and will get also the less amateur to be more
open to this new world. I’m passionate about what’s happening in
this new world. I’m passionate about what’s happening because I
think it’s a new slice of life, it’s a new slice of future which
is opening for us. It is something that is absolutely fantastic
and we should not look at this only as a matrix, analytics, and
as technology. We should never forget that what we do above all
is to create an emotion, to create a bond, to create a link
between the consumer and the brand. And in this field the way
you communicate is very important. You have permission to go
beyond the classic boundaries. You have permission to step on a
few rules. In fact, please do so!
L.A.: That’s a great
curve you have drawn there. I totally agree. At the end of the
day, the internet took distribution out of the hands of a few
and gave it to the many. The possibility to express that emotion
can bring a lot to the party of humanity.
Maurice Lévy: I fully
agree. Don’t be afraid. Be daring! And the best way to be daring
is to have your work amongst that of all the others. It’s to be
judged by millions of people and to be seen by these millions of
people. They will tell you what you have done is crap – or what
you have done is fantastic. So if you are a good creative
director, if you have little bit of talent, go create and go to
YouTube and upload your work there. You will see it amongst the
best, amongst the crap, amongst the very best. You will be
judged by millions of people and they will decide if you are
good or not. So be daring, go to Creative Heads on YouTube and
L.A.: You have had an
extraordinary career in ad-vertising. How did you get into the
Maurice Lévy: Like
many admen, I joined an agency by accident and I fell in love
L.A.: How important
was the influence of Publicis and Mr. Bleustein-Blanchet in
Maurice Lévy: Marcel
Bleu-stein-Blanchet and Publicis played (and Publicis still
does) a paramount role in the advertising landscape. Marcel
started in 1926 and brought modern creativity, professionalism,
tools, market research, etc. to France. He also had a life that
was truly “larger than life.” He was in the Resistance, went to
London with General de Gaulle, created the first commercial
radio station, and on and on. Publicis created a lot of “firsts”
in the French market.
L.A.: You have had an
enormous output. What were the highlights of the work you have
Maurice Lévy: There
are too many. For me, the highlights and the best work are
always yet to come.
L.A.: What were the
most critical moments?
Maurice Lévy: There were
many: the fire in the office building and the risk of seeing all
our operations disappear; the divorce from FCB (we formed an
alliance which failed); those were the most difficult moments.
On the positive side, the most important steps forward – after
building the strongest French advertising and communication
agency with Nestlé, L’Oréal, Renault – were globalization, the
winning of some key clients like Coca-Cola, or the acquisition
of Saatchi & Saatchi, which opened up our collaboration with
P&G, and a lot more, including the Bcom3 acquisition, and the
shift to digital followed by the acquisition of Digitas and
Razorfish. But, you know, I have the feeling that I have not
achieved a lot in relation to what I still have to do.
L.A.: Why do you
always support extraordinary creative individuals like Dave
Maurice Lévy: First of all,
because I love creativity and my eyes still light up like a
child’s when I see a great new idea. Second, because most of the
time these people are simply fantastic and need to be supported
to help them take their ideas to fruition. This is true of
creative people – but not only creatives.
L.A.: Why are you
Maurice Lévy: Why?
Funny question. I’m used to thinking differently, out of the
box. Is it in my nature? Well, if so, I am not responsible for
it, nor do I have any merit.
L.A.: Now that you
have achieved everything one can achieve in advertising, how do
you see the future of the business?
Maurice Lévy: The
beauty with advertising is that it is continuously changing,
while at the same time the fundamentals remain the same; it is
all about ideas – strategic, media or creative ideas. Tomorrow,
the world will be hugely impacted by digital innovation: TV,
social networks, mobile communication, the internet, etc, etc.
People’s behavior will change: the way they learn, get informed,
shop, communicate, etc., and this will change the way we work
dramatically. But what will remain the very key are ideas.
L.A.: What is the most
important thing to you in this business?
Maurice Lévy: For me,
the most important thing in this business is passion. Since day
one. I’ve had the good fortune to work passionately for clients,
for great ads, for new ideas, for new ventures, and still today
that passion is as fresh as it was on day one.