Mark Ritson: Publicis has done nothing but prove agile structures are a load of BS

A year on from Arthur Sadoun’s explosive start as CEO of Publicis Groupe, it is abundantly clear that most, if not all, of his extravagant claims, from the disappointment of Marcel to the about-turn on Cannes, are nothing more than the usual agency posturing.


There was a flurry of press coverage a year ago when Publicis Groupe announced Arthur Sadoun would replace long-serving chief executive Maurice Lévy. The media frenzy was understandable. Publicis is one of the big five advertising agencies and Lévy had been running the groupe for two decades.

A change at the helm was always going to be newsworthy but Sadoun wasted no time making his mark on the agency group and generating a bundle of new headlines. On 20 June last year he dropped three simultaneous bombshells.

First, he wanted to change Publicis from a “holding company to a platform”. The CEO described his vision of a new Publicis that would be freed from its existing structure and transformed into one that was “an agile, flat, modular, dynamic organisation that would create new value for clients and everyone within the organisation”.

Second, to achieve this bold operating model, Sadoun said Publicis would spend the next 12 months building a new artificial intelligence system called Marcel. The mysterious project was named after Publicis’ legendary founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet and promised to be a revolutionary new approach. “We want to build a platform at the core of our organisation that will totally transform the way we interact, in that it will actually change the way we operate and give another meaning and another future to our talents,” Sadoun explained.

Sadoun’s senior leadership team were equally enthused about Marcel. “This is the first-ever professional assistant platform that is powered by artificial intelligence and connects 80,000 employees across 200 disciplines,” explained chief strategy officer Carla Serrano. It was going to deliver “creativity without borders” according to the group’s then global creative chief Mark Tutssel.

Marketers, in their ongoing erotic obsession with techno-porn, hardly seem able to complete a sentence these days without slipping ‘AI’ or ‘machine learning’ in there somewhere.

But it was Sadoun’s third revelation, revealed later that day in an internal memo from the finance department, and confirmed by the CEO, that made even bigger headlines. The company was looking to save 2.5% in cost synergies in 2018 and in order to achieve these savings, and fund Marcel, Publicis would “not participate in any vendor conferences, industry trade shows and/or award shows”.

Publicis, one of the biggest agency groups in the world, had just pulled the plug on Cannes and all other awards events for the next 12 months. It was a decision that sparked enormous debate within the industry, not just about the direction Publicis was taking but on the future of awards events in general and Cannes specifically.

READ MORE: Maurice Levy warns brands the Internet of Things could make them ‘irrelevant’

Extravagant claims

Twelve months on from Sadoun’s explosive start as CEO it is abundantly clear that most, if not all, of Publicis’ extravagant claims are little more than the usual advertising agency bullshit.

While there was much talk about the new “agile” structure of Publicis, the reality is the same old functional model remains in place. I grow increasingly suspicious of any marketer who trumpets agility as a goal worthy of their attention. It’s become a cliché of the highest order to drop agility into pretty much everything. I really can’t see the attraction.

Brands need discipline. They need strategy. They need focus. They need to deliver. What they don’t need is a bunch of mercurial horseshit about being agile, which – let’s be honest – essentially means they bin the strategy and head in whatever direction the wind happens to be blowing at that moment.

Most marketers need less agility, not more. They need to stick to the fucking plan. Or, in most cases, actually spend time building a plan to stick to. The fact that Publicis was trying to introduce more agility into the rotating roller disco of agency operations speaks volumes about the strategic merit of Sadoun’s new direction and the practicality of his bold approach.

And there was even more room for disappointment late last month when Publicis finally presented Marcel in all its artificially intelligent glory. I am no expert in technology or advanced programming, but I can smell a donkey from three hundred yards. The amazing new Marcel, which was going to revolutionise the world of work, break down the barriers to creativity and solve the human and cultural shift turns out to be little more than LinkedIn with a bit of search and email capability.

Publicis’ share price is down 15% since the announcement of Marcel a year ago.

I have a very smart colleague who often advises students to replace the words ‘artificial intelligence’ with the more banal but accurate phrase ‘computer programme’. He claims the switch removes all the bullshit and restores a bit of sanity to the world.

Marketers and their ongoing erotic obsession with techno-porn hardly seem able to complete a sentence these days without slipping ‘AI’ or ‘machine learning’ in there somewhere.

And I remain resolutely convinced that almost all of them do not have the faintest clue what they are talking about and that they are overstating the impact of AI by about 400%.

READ MORE: P&G’s Marc Pritchard calls for an end to the ‘archaic Mad Men model’

So behold Marcel, the paragon of AI. What a load of old bollocks. I could achieve the same functionality and impact with a smartphone and half a Moleskin. You can call it a revolutionary piece of machine learning if you want. It does not make it any less underwhelming or strategically inexplicable that Publicis, such a fine and established agency group, could waste their collective intent on this for 12 long months.

And there was even more Publicis-induced bullshit this week. Remember all that posturing about banning awards shows and dropping out of Cannes? Guess how many Publicis people will be in Cannes next week for the Festival of Creativity? About 70.

Wait, what?

Yes, it turns out that the strategic decision not to attend Cannes has been completely reversed. That’s agility for you I guess. Now a large number of Publicis people will be in Cannes after all. Arthur Sadoun is going. Of course he is. And, wait for it, on 19 June Publicis will present its new Marcel model at the Cannes Festival.

After all that fluster and bluster what are we left with? A vaguely confusing new vision of an “agile” company. A hugely underwhelming app that looks like a bad version of LinkedIn. And a complete 180-degree reversal on conferences and awards. The only thing Publicis has really achieved this year is make it absolutely clear there is a strategic vacuum operating at the very top of the organisation.

Hide Comments12 Show Comments
  • Gerben Busch 14 Jun 2018 at 8:19 am

    Based upon the introduction movie I’d say Marcel can really add value in finding resources and skills, but I really don’t see what’s so AI about it. It’s more like an intranet with speech to text navigation.

  • Sai Nagesh 14 Jun 2018 at 8:31 am

    With consulting firms snapping at the heals of agencies & threatening the very core of their business principles, its so dangerous to not walk the talk !

  • Tadas R. 14 Jun 2018 at 11:26 am

    It looks quite impressive, but how that would work is beyond me. Let’s face it, the most senior people in agencies have the most experience, but at the same time, their work schedules are very intensive. If someone has experience in a specific field, it doesn’t mean that that person is available to collaborate with her “colleague” from the other side of the world from a different agency. It looks that Marcel is taking the cross-functional structure to another level.
    If an employee has a rare skill, how agencies would split that employee’s time? Would they bid with money against each other?
    I wish them all the best, agencies need to change, and all kind of experiments are welcome.

    • Grant Simmons 14 Jun 2018 at 2:44 pm

      Was thinking exactly the same thing… seems like creative, accounting & organizational anarchy. Agile means cutting through the crap with checks & balances to make sure there’s consistency to ensure quality. Agility vs Anarchy vs Common Sense. I know which I’d choose.

  • Valentin V 14 Jun 2018 at 11:57 am

    Love it.

  • Satish Pai 14 Jun 2018 at 2:05 pm

    Yammer and similar socmed platforms must be quickly rebranding themselves to an AI platform and hike their prices by ’00 times…

  • Molly Rumbelow 15 Jun 2018 at 9:58 am

    Chuckling over ‘stick to the F*cking plan’ – I have seen so many inefficiencies caused by jumping on the latest and ‘greatest’ tech bandwagon. Just do what you say you will, when you say you will. Simple.

  • Guy Purchase 15 Jun 2018 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks Mark, really interesting read! I’d like to read more around what you say regarding “Brands need discipline. They need strategy. They need focus. They need to deliver’. Are you able to recommend any literature?

  • Eddie Irvine 17 Jun 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Great article. Having worked for Publicis -a great agency network, I hope they can start concentrating on their clients not themselves

  • ajinkya pawar 17 Jun 2018 at 4:27 pm

    you’ve got a point there mark. but the point is muddled with as much confusion as Publicis is confused with its Marcel attempt. True, currently Marcel is little more than a glorified linkedin app. But you are wrong in not even considering what AI is all about. It is buzzword for those who don’t understand it – here it means you and publicis too to an extent.
    Indeed, the first three apps are quite pedestrian – I have talked about them here
    The real game is about generating and leveraging the big data of 80000 people using these services to streamline their work. Businesses that leverage AI are fundamentally different than the ones we are used to. The game is about accessing the right data sets and then leveraging that to create predictive ability that makes certain tasks possible at scale.
    It is a difficult problem to solve, but i am sure Publicis will eventually pivot to make better use of their internal data, the marcel app data and some external data that they have access to.
    Agility may be a buzz word, but it is the wrong thing to focus on as a critique. i doubt that publicis meant it in the way that you did – ofcourse, they are not advocating for marketing strategies themselves to be ‘agile’ as you suggest. Agility is about way of working and that is a multi-billion dollar business opportunity to solve for.
    (also, why the hell are these comments designed to be bold and so damn loud.)

  • Heather Johnston 18 Jun 2018 at 8:33 am

    80,000 people is not a ‘network’. Just about every piece of work pattern psychology I have seen put the upper limit of effective true networks in the dozens, and day to day contacts at about 20, and as we all know, there is no advantage to meetings with more than 8 participants, board or otherwise. If Account Manager A tracks down Creative C, who looks bang to rights for the job, what about the minor inconvenience that A is located in Budapest working for Agency AB, while C is in the Philippines working for packaging designers CD? Oh, yes, and they do not share a common language. Everything goes into and out of Google Translate. Cue much hilarity. The accounts department will be especially amused.
    ‘Flexible’ seems to be code for ‘don’t ask me, I’m a temp/intern/on secondment, you’ll have to ask Fred, he’s in on Tuesdays’. I don’t know what ‘agile’ is code for, maybe leaping high buildings at a single bound.

  • David Vawter 18 Jun 2018 at 2:19 pm

    This is all ignoring the elephant in the room, namely that clients will scream for “agility” then take six months approving an idea, and that only after 12 rounds of revisions. We tried this matrix strategy back in the early 2000s, and what it led to was the profound revelation that people who are 500 or 5,000 miles away from the action aren’t really all that committed to seeing a given project through to completion. Mr Sadoun has just compounded the complexity of the agency-client relationship, primarily to the detriment of the folks who actually have to manage the day-to-day swirl. Reminds me of a former colleague who told me Maurice Levy hired him to find out why he didn’t win more prizes in Cannes, then micromanaged every aspect of his job for him. Geniuses never learn.

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