If nothing else, the advent of the Eurostar train has made it easier to be a Frenchman in London. Olivier Fleurot knows this better than most.
Ten years ago, the new Publicis Groupe PR chief began commuting between Paris and London after a surprise appointment as MD of the Financial Times. The speedy rail connection ensured punctuality was not a problem. Instead, the 57-year-old found other factors linked to his homeland might pose bigger obstacles.
'Probably a lot of people were thinking, why do we need a French guy to run the FT,' says Fleurot, with a hint of a shrug. 'There was resistance, obviously. I would go back home and say, well I think they accept me for another week.'
Fleurot ended up staying for eight years, rising to the role of CEO, and was described as the man who took the pink-tinted paper digital. This counts as quite an achievement for a Frenchman working in that most British of institutions.
'Part of his success and charm was his tongue-in-cheek humour,' says FT global commercial director Ben Hughes. 'He always started his staff presentations with a loud "bonjour" just to remind us that there really was a French guy in charge.'
His next trick, revitalising Publicis Groupe's perennially underachieving PR unit, may be even harder than winning over the English. Fleurot's recent ascension followed abrupt departures of the global CEOs of its two key networks: Manning Selvage & Lee, and Publicis Consultants.
In addition to heading the two net-works, Fleurot also oversees a division that includes Freud Communications and US agencies Kekst and McGinn Group. It is, as he admits, three jobs rolled into one.
This is his first job in PR, after two years spent running Publicis' ad business, yet he feels his lengthy media career will stand him in good stead. 'When I switched from FT to Publicis Worldwide, overseeing 10,000 people in 80 countries, I had no experience as the manager of an ad agency.'
'He is a warm, open and collaborative individual,' says Publicis Worldwide CEO Richard Pinder, who succeeded Fleurot. 'There's a French expression - "bien dans sa peau" - which means being comfortable in your own skin. He doesn't try to upstage people, overshadow or attack.'
But Fleurot does not intend to rely on Gallic charm alone. To understand him fully one needs to understand his passion for rugby. While former FT editor, and current CBI director-general, Richard Lambert points out that Fleurot was never a 'head-basher', he does note that 'he is direct in a non-hostile way'.
'I am a rugby player, so I don't hesitate to tackle,' agrees Fleurot. 'If people want to fight, I can fight. I'm not afraid of any resistance or opponents.'
Fighting words indeed. But Fleurot feels there are silos that need to be destroyed if Publicis is to finally punch its weight in PR terms. First up, he wants MS&L and Publicis Consultants to effectively form one network.
'It is fair to say Publicis Consultants has not invested as much as the other holding groups,' admits Fleurot. 'I need to change the mentality and make sure they co-operate more than compete. We need to join forces - today none of our networks would be able to serve one client worldwide.'
In theory, this makes sense. But Fleurot is aware of the pitfalls. There are cultural issues to consider as he tries to mesh MS&L's American heritage with the Parisian leanings of Publicis Consultants. Then there are the crown jewels - the local market agencies that Fleurot also wants to become part of this approach.
'There will be a few exceptions as some managers have their own vision of how they should report within the group,' says Fleurot. He names no names, but it is hard to avoid the impression he is referring to either Matthew Freud or Kekst partner Gershon Kekst. Either way, Fleurot is confident he can get people to speak his language, if only because, in his first job as an engineer, he achieved just that.
'I had to work immediately in foreign countries. In Turkey I learned 300 words of Turkish, built my own language and by the end all my colleagues were speaking like me,' he points out.
'He was brought up in a military background,' says Pinder. 'He is comfortable meeting people and makes them feel comfortable meeting him.'
It is an international outlook that should prove useful for the firms under his charge. 'You don't manage Argentinians the way you manage the Germans, and I love that,' says Fleurot.
How then, does he intend to manage the English? 'By not being too French.'
Olivier Fleurot's turning points
- What was your biggest career break?
In 1978, when I was an engineer working at IDI in Richmond, Virginia, I decided to be a journalist. So I resigned, went back to Paris and became a business journalist, which led me to be the CEO of the FT Group. Joining Publicis in 2006 was another significant break.
- Have you had a notable mentor?
Marjorie Scardino, the only woman managing a FTSE 100 company, who asked us, day after day, to be 'brave, imaginative and decent'. I like this combination of words. And now Maurice Levy, chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe, who has built this world-class comms group based in Paris and always encourages us to 'monter plus haut'. The writer Albert Camus has been a very inspiring source for the past 40 years.
- What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder?
Take risks, be passionate and always look for a job where you can learn from great people.
- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
I like strong personalities, energy, enthusiasm, positive thinkers and internationally minded people.
- 2009 CEO, Public Relations Corporate Communications and Publicis Events Worldwide, Publicis Groupe
- 2006: Executive chairman, Publicis Worldwide
- 2006: Senior adviser to Marjorie Scardino, CEO, Pearson
- 2003: Chief executive, Financial Times Group
- 1999: MD, Financial Times
- 1996: CEO, Les echos Group
- 1988: Marketing, circulation and comms manager, Les echos
- 1985: Head of business development, Lotus
- 1978: Journalist, Les echos
- 1975: Engineer, Degrement