Davos WEF

The 'old idea' of maximizing profits is now 'part of the past': Publicis chair

Key Points
  • Maurice Levy, chair of ad conglomerate Publicis Groupe, says profit is no longer a sole focus for business.
  • World Economic Forum delegates are "extremely serious" about sustainability, he added.
  • But Levy said that CEOs need the support of investors to tackle issues such as how to be a "good citizen."
Maurice Levy, chair of French multinational advertising and public relations company Publicis Groupe
Dominique Charriau | Getty Images

Companies are now becoming "extremely serious" about sustainability, where previously they were all about shareholder value, according to an ad industry veteran.

Maurice Levy, chair of ad agency conglomerate Publicis Groupe, said businesses are moving away from a sole focus on profit.

Speaking to CNBC anchor Joumanna Bercetche at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, Levy said: "We see that there is a huge difference between the previous Davos and today, that people are extremely serious about addressing the issues of sustainable development, that they are taking this very, very seriously."

"I feel that everyone is conscious that the old idea of ... maximizing profits, maximizing shareholder value, the old Milton Friedman concept is now part of the past," he added, referring to the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

But while CEOs are serious about a sustainability focus, investors still need convincing, Levy stated.

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"The only thing which is missing — and it's a very important piece — is to have the investors, not just the owners (focused on sustainability)," he said. The challenge, he noted, is that investors, institutions, fund managers who are competing for their bonuses are trying to maximize the value of their investment focusing on quarterly performance.

"I hope that we will see a change. The planet deserves that change, so I hope that it will happen," he said.

Asked about Publicis' clients' attitudes toward sustainability, Levy said brand-building and sales are the priority, followed by reducing carbon emissions and being a "good citizen." The group's clients include Mercedes-Benz, Marriott and GlaxoSmithKline.

"How to fix the issues of gender, equality, diversity, equal pay — there are so many issues facing corporations that it's a humongous task," Levy said. "CEOs are perfectly conscious; what they need is to have a little bit of leeway and the support of the investors. I'm absolutely convinced that, at a point in time, they will be joining."

Levy stepped down as CEO of Publicis Groupe in 2017 to become its chair, and in November he was named WeWork's interim chief marketing and communications officer in a revamp that saw the company lay off 2,400 staff.