Publicis' Arthur Sadoun: 'Charm, charisma and arrogance in a single package'

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Arthur Sadoun is the Publicis Worldwide boss and an exec going places in a hurry at the network. John Tylee meets the man who many consider to be Maurice Lévy's heir apparent.

Don’t you just hate Arthur Sadoun? Not only is he the boss of one of the world’s biggest agency networks – with enough talent and ambition to rise even higher – but he’s also devastatingly charming.

And, although the Publicis Worldwide chief executive won’t thank you for mentioning it, his wife has been voted the 55th-sexiest woman in the world by a lads’ magazine’s readers.

On the face of it, this is a pairing with all the credentials to be one of France’s "golden couples."

Madame Sadoun is better-known as the French journalist and TV host Anne-Sophie Lapix. Her husband is widely tipped to succeed Maurice Lévy as the Publicis Groupe chief executive when the latter retires in 2017.

Yet it’s inconceivable that the Sadouns would ever grace the pages of Hello! They never go to social events together and, although magazines have pictured them canoodling at the French Open tennis championships, they jealously guard their private lives.

"Arthur doesn’t like the spotlight and he’s no show-off," a former colleague says. What’s more, any attempt to draw him on the succession is immediately declared off-limits.

Yet nobody could blame Sadoun for his reticence, for nothing is ever a foregone conclusion in Publicis. And he knows it.

Indeed, he has installed an ejector seat in his office to remind himself, he says, of the fragility of a job commanding a 12,000-strong workforce. In that same office, you’ll find on prominent display a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem "If." This is the one that begins:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

Sadoun insists these are not symbols of his insecurity but of the importance of being in a kind of discomfort zone in order to achieve peak performance. "He has tough decisions to take and he isn’t afraid to take them," a former associate says.

"You can’t work at your best if you’re too comfortable and complacent all the time," Sadoun contends.

"We have always to remind ourselves that our clients can leave tomorrow if they wish."

He might have just as easily been talking about his own place within the Publicis hierarchy. A few years ago, it looked as though Olivier Fleurot, then the executive chairman of Publicis Worldwide, was Lévy’s anointed heir. Now he runs MSLGROUP, the Publicis global PR arm. Jean-Yves Naouri, who was the chief operating officer until September, was tested and sidelined.

"Is Sadoun being groomed for the top job?" a Publicis insider asks rhetorically. "Almost certainly. Is he also being tested? Remember that this is Publicis. We all are, all the time."

Nevertheless, there is a lot to suggest that Sadoun occupies pole position. Not least because his rise to the top job at Publicis Worldwide was planned some time before he was given the role.

Moreover, Publicis fits Sadoun like a glove. "I love its entrepreneurial and innovative culture," he says.

A younger version of Lévy

He also has the ear of the Publicis Groupe boss, who values his counsel. "He isn’t always in agreement with Lévy," a former top Publicis executive observes. "But he’s good at convincing him of something without being aggressive – but mostly because he can deliver results."

Many believe that Lévy sees a lot of himself in Sadoun. Both are towering six-footers and both natural businessmen who happen to be working in advertising.

"Sadoun is everything you would expect from a younger Maurice," a former Publicis Groupe senior manager remarks. "His charm, charisma and arrogance come wrapped in a single package."

He is intensely loyal to Lévy and doggedly defends his boss, who found his reputation dented after abandoning the Omnicom merger. "It was a very courageous decision to call off a merger for the sake of our identity and independence," Sadoun comments.

Sadoun was born in Paris, the son of a wartime French resistance fighter who later worked with General De Gaulle and the Free French in London before becoming an opinion pollster.

On graduating from the European Business School in Paris, where his studies had included spells in London and Spain, Sadoun found jobs at home hard to come by. Spurning the offer of work for a luxury brand in New York, he set off for Chile. "I didn’t know Chile but I thought of it as a small country with big opportunities, and my Spanish was good," he remembers.

He began by importing French fashion brands at low prices and selling them at huge margins. When competition threatened to kill his business, he set up a small promotions agency, expanding the operation to 40 staff before selling it to BBDO and returning home: "I felt that if I stayed away too long, I’d never come back."

An MBA from INSEAD under his belt, he rejected a job offer from McKinsey in favour of one from TBWA. Sadoun wasn’t cut out for the senior planning role he had taken on but realised he had an aptitude and a hunger for new business. "Each time I pitch, I’m there to win," he declares. Capturing the Tag Heuer account against seemingly impossible odds propelled him into the managing directorship of the Paris agency.

Sadoun says he learned the effect of good teamwork at TBWA, and his galvanising influence on it (the Paris agency doubled in size and was named Agency of the Year at Cannes for four successive years) brought him to Lévy’s attention. That ultimately resulted in his appointment to run Publicis Conseil, the Publicis network’s Paris-based flagship agency.

Credited with leading a remarkable turnaround creatively and in new business at Publicis Conseil, Sadoun’s rise within the Publicis empire has been meteoric. He is certainly a man in a hurry. Those who know him say he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and can turn meetings into shouting matches.

"There are times when he can be really unpleasant," a former associate says. "You are either in Sadoun’s team or you’re not. But if you are, you will always have his trust and support."

But another claims that Sadoun has a soft side too. "Behind his image lie good human values," he says. "He has learned to separate the job from the man."

Sadoun attributes his occasional bad temper to the pace at which he wants things to happen: "I believe in transformation, so speed is very important and maybe I get impatient when things aren’t happening quickly enough."

‘He makes things happen’

While he remains taciturn on the subject of succession, he is eager to present his international credentials and to counter suggestions that his ability to handle global responsibilities is moot given that his agency career was built mainly in France.

Publicis Conseil has always been at the heart of the Publicis global network, he says. And, after what he describes as a very challenging period, the European operation began growing steadily on his watch.

"He doesn’t pretend to be a visionary, but he’s a guy who makes things happen," a former Publicis Conseil senior manager says. "And he’s very good at reassuring clients that he’s right."

A year into the leadership of Publicis Worldwide, Sadoun is focused on helping keep clients abreast of the technology that is transforming consumer behaviour and bolstering the network’s digital offerings in countries such as France, Germany and Brazil.

Whether all this, along with his ability to champion creativity and lead strong teams, and – as a one-time colleague says – "his skill at hiring people who can do the things he knows he can’t," is enough to take him right to the top remains to be seen.

"Arthur is a fast learner," someone who knows him well observes. "That’s just as well because he still has a lot to learn."

This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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