“MAURICE is immortal,” says the chief executive of a French multinational. When told of his friend’s comment, Maurice Lévy, boss of Publicis, one of the world’s biggest advertising firms, is visibly flattered. But he demurs. “When you think you are immortal, you will make the biggest errors of your life,” he says. “I know that if I fail to find the right successor, my entire career will be a failure.”
Mr Lévy’s longevity at the top is unusual in a business known for short attention spans. But Publicis is unusual, too. Since the Paris-based firm was founded by Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet in 1926, it has had only two bosses: the founder and Mr Lévy, who took over in 1987. Mr Lévy, who turns 70 in February, had planned to retire at the end of this year, but the board recently raised the age limit for its members to 75. On November 29th Publicis said that all of them had been reappointed for four years.
The board wants him to stay, says Mr Lévy, because the economic crisis could last, so they want a safe pair of hands at the top. He sees lots of uncertainty next year, though he does not think that companies will cut back advertising spending as sharply as they did after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Their response to the dire state of the economy will vary from one industry and country to the next. In Europe, not surprisingly, the outlook is bleaker the farther south you go.
Yet the forecast for global ad spending in the next few years released on December 5th by ZenithOptimedia, an agency owned by Publicis, is fairly rosy. It says spending will rise by 4.7% in 2012 to $486 billion, having gone up by 3.5% this year. A good chunk of next year’s increase is due to events that come around every four years: a presidential election in America, the summer Olympics and the European football championship. The forecast for the next two years, though, is even better: 5.2% growth in 2013 and 5.8% in 2014 (see chart.)
The internet and emerging economies are the two fastest-growing areas in the ad world. Mr Lévy is betting big on both. Five years ago he bought Digitas, an internet-ad agency, for $1.3 billion. Some thought that pricey. Undeterred, Mr Lévy bought Razorfish, an American digital agency, for $530m in 2009, and Rosetta, another, for $575m in May this year. Today internet advertising accounts for more than 30% of the revenue of Publicis, against around 20% for WPP, its British rival.