Publicis CEO Levy to Step Down; Can a Non-Frenchman Succeed Him?

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 1:18 PM EDT

Publicis (PUB) CEO Maurice Levy will likely be succeeded by a French insider despite the fact that his ad agency network makes about half its money in the U.S. alone, if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly regarding the Silver Fox's decision to step down in 2011.

The Guardian reported Levy's exit in a breathless scoop that was news to everyone except those who read about it on BNET Advertising last October -- or the WSJ/Dow Jones report upon which that item was based.

Levy was at Publicis, owner of famed ad agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett, for 40 years. He signaled there were inside candidates for the job:

There are strong candidates [inside Publicis Groupe] but it will be up to the board to make the decision and choose. As far as I'm concerned what I can do is make a recommendation which I will do.
There's nothing wrong with appointing an insider, but the insiders at Publicis are mostly French. The company's biggest market is the U.S. So the question is, will les patrons have the stomach to appoint a non-French person to run their business?

Levy will be missed. He made the business look good. And he was entertaining, both in his own right (such as when he starred in a stream-of-consciousness New Year video greeting to his staff) and as a sparring partner for WPP (WPPGY) chief Martin Sorrell, with whom he frequently traded insults.

The only real black mark on his tenure at Publicis was Leo Burnett's traitorous fraud on the U.S. Army during a time of war, a scandal that cost the company $15 million. And that was entirely the fault of his underlings in Chicago.

The question now becomes, who will replace him? Personally, I'm rooting for Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts. He's got tons of experience and has been a player on both the client side (at P&G) and the agency side. Roberts is a has adopted New Zealand as one of his homes* and divides his time between the Antipodes, the U.K. and New York on an insane travel schedule that only someone who really, really loves the business would undertake. As such, he has the relevant level of English-speaking internationalism to cater to all constituencies in Publicis. Roberts is also a colorful character who isn't afraid to open his mouth in the vicinity of his foot. This isn't a diss -- agencies need characters, otherwise they become invisible to potential clients.

On the downside, Roberts is 60 and therefore might not be a long-term replacement. (Also, he's a Manchester City F.C. fan, which says something odd about his judgment.)

The problem is that Roberts isn't French. Of the 15 members of Publicis's supervisory board, 11 are French. Roberts is one of four insiders who appear qualified for the succession, but one of the other candidates is also Frenchman Jean-Yves Naori, evp operations Publicis Groupe.

The odds therefore suggest that Naori is the favorite. But hey, what do I know?

And finally: Publicis released its Q1 2010 results today, and saw revenues climb 8.1 percent to $1.1 billion, not accounting for currency.

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Image by Flickr user World Economic Forum, CC. *Correction: Roberts isn't from New Zealand. He's Lancashire born and bred. Apologies for the error.