January 24, 2008 / 8:03 PM / in 10 years

Davos serves as virtual boxing ring for ad rivals

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum is “collaborative innovation,” but there’s still nothing like a bit of bare-knuckled verbal sparring from Davos veterans Martin Sorrell and Maurice Levy.

There’s never been much love lost between Sorrell, chief executive of UK advertising company WPP Group Plc (WPP.L), and Levy, CEO of its French counterpart, Publicis (PUBP.PA). The not-so-friendly rivalry flared up on Thursday over a Publicis partnership with Google Inc (GOOG.O) unveiled this week.

According to a joint Publicis/Google announcement, they have been working together for a year to combine Google’s technological know-how with Publicis’s analytical and media-planning expertise. One executive familiar with the deal said each firm will “embed” staff within each other’s offices.

“Google is not a short-term friend and a long-term enemy,” Levy said. It was a barb aimed at Sorrell, who categorized Google in exactly those terms last year.

In Davos on Thursday, Sorrell was dubious that there was much substance in the partnership between his rival and the Internet company, which he has also described as a “frenemy.”

“Next time I meet with (Google CEO) Eric Schmidt I think we’ll send out a press release,” Sorrell told Reuters in an interview, which was also broadcast into the virtual world Second Life. “This morning I met with Maurice Levy, does this mean we’re putting out a joint venture?”

“What Publicis is doing represents a little bit of concern that they didn’t get the technology right,” Sorrell added. “I think Maurice is acknowledging a bit of an Achilles heel when it comes to technology.”

Levy did not hold back in his response.

    “I‘m sorry Martin said that -- it’s really cheap, but it’s probably the result of his lack of understanding of technology,” Levy said in a mobile video interview with Reuters.

    “He’s a financier, I‘m an engineer, and you can see the difference. I‘m pleased with what we have done, and I‘m sorry that my dear friend has not understood it.”

    Yet the spat between the two ad execs may have little effect outside the cloistered confines of Davos. WPP remains one of Google’s largest clients, spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on behalf of advertising and media-buying clients.

    Also, emphasizing the limits of any Publicis/Google partnership, Schmidt said last week that Google “will never become an advertising agency.”

    (To view a video interview with Levy and hear an audio interview with Sorrell, go to here)

    Additional reporting by Nic Fulton in Davos and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Editing by Braden Reddall

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