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.
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%.
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.
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.