Publicis' big new idea: fiefdoms replace silos

14 Dec 2015  |  Dominic Mills 
Publicis' big new idea: fiefdoms replace silos

Advertising group Publicis is preparing for a complete restructure - and it could soon cause civil war, writes Dominic Mills.

Among the many things that have left Publicis' 75,000 staff bemused by Maurice Levy's dramatic-sounding restructure announced in early December, one trivial note puzzles them more than most.

The new arrangement kicks in on January 2. That's a Saturday and, in most countries where Publicis operates - Dubai etc apart - also a public holiday. Is this a coded message, that in the new era, they are all supposed to work weekends?

That may be the case. Levy signs off a 20-minute video explaining the changes. Staring unblinkingly into the camera, he says "I know I can count on each and every one of you" - and waves his index finger dramatically to punctuate the gap between the words.

There's an air of menace about his performance, not unlike that of the Bond baddie broadcasting his plan for world domination from a secret location in, say, Paris' 8th arrondissement near the Arc de Triomphe.

Over the course of the video, the hand movements go from passive - at one stage he looks like he's practising his knitting - to aggressive: all finger wagging and karate chopping movements.

No doubt this is intentional. Gone is the louche, silver-fox charm he usually adopts. Levy wants to convey the seriousness of his intent. He needs to. The disaster of the failed Omnicom merger threatens to be his legacy. The share price drags, held back by an anaemic set of results in October and an unambitious forecast for 2016 of just 1 per cent growth.

And to cap it all, just days after the announcement, came two big blows for Publicis' US operations: first, the loss of $2.6bn of Procter & Gamble media to - of all people - Omnicom; and then the departure of L'Oreal to MEC.

But what of the changes? You can read Publicis' official, and somewhat gnomic, version here.

At the heart of the change, Levy insists, is the idea of putting the client centre-stage. "We opted for a new ambition - incredibly demanding - of putting the client at the core."

This is a puzzle to me, because I take it to mean that the client wasn't at the core before. It's a damning admission. What was at the core before? Well, Publicis' own self-interest, I would assume. Either that or a rotten, empty, hollow.

Anyway, it's hardly radical. Yet how many clients would Levy himself, or his senior staff, have wooed in the old days by insisting that their interests were paramount, and they were right at the centre of Publicis' attentions?

And going further down the chain, how many CMOs or brand managers would have been told by Publicis agencies - from Saatchi to BBH to Zenith to DigitasLBI - that the one thing they had to do was put their own customers at the centre of their thinking? And yet all the time these agencies, or their parent, weren't matching their words to their actions. So why should anyone believe them this time?

Now to the mechanism by which this will be achieved. "We reverse our model. Tear down silos. Turning upside down," Levy insists.

It's dramatic language, although I personally think talk about turning things upside down should be reserved for egg-timers.

So instead of a sprawling mass of individual units (and silos), Publicis now has four 'solution hubs': one for all creative agencies (Publicis Worldwide, Saatchi, Burnett etc); one for media (Zenith, Starcom, Vivaki etc); one for digital (Sapient, Razorfish and so on); and one for healthcare (too dull for me to think about).

Alongside sit 20 newly created roles, that of chief client officer (CCO, I assume, although that acronym also covers big-cheese creatives) with the ability to cherry-pick agencies from the four hubs that best suit the client's needs.

The FT didn't waste any time in comparing Levy to King Lear."

And then above these we have another new role, that of chief revenue officer, whose job is to bash heads together to make sure the 'hubs' work co-operatively, the CCOs get the agencies they want, and Publicis Groupe sells the maximum number of services it can to the maximum number of clients - without any individual agency or unit boss getting in the way.

Hmmm. This doesn't sound very upside down to me. In fact it sounds a lot like that WPP neologism - 'horizontality' - in which clients can pick the agencies and services they want from within the WPP agency empire, or from which WPP assembles cross-discipline, cross-group units to work on an individual global client - Team Ford, Team HSBC etc.

Except that 'horizontality' is the term invented by Levy's nemesis, Sir Martin Sorrell, so there's no way he's going to even use any term that resembles that, even if the success WPP has had with its team concept is something Levy would dearly like to copy.

Ok, as if that wasn't enough, Levy has also used the re-organisation as a starting pistol for the race to succeed him when ('if' might also be apposite) he retires in May 2017.

There are four candidates: Arthur Sadoun, who runs the creative hub; Steve King, boss of the media hub; Alan Herrick, from the digital one; and Laura Desmond, the chief revenue officer.

The FT didn't waste any time in comparing Levy to King Lear.

Shakespeare fans will know that Lear planned his succession by dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. The sisters plot against each other, and violence, corruption, deceit and tragedy ensue.

That is an exaggeration of how things will play out. But ambition - and who would not want to succeed Levy - is a powerful force. Not only does the winner have to succeed, but his or her rivals have to fail. Playing nicey-nicey isn't necessarily the way to win. To borrow from Reginald Perrin's boss, CJ, Levy didn't get where he is today by giving his leadership competitors an even break. The recent history of Publicis is littered with 'successors' to Levy who've been disappeared.

And each of the four, like Lear's daughters, has a powerful kingdom at their disposal. They can use their assets to further their own cause, and harm those of their rivals. They will recruit their agency barons to their cause, building their own internal armies. Who's to say that civil war won't break out.

Let's say, for example, Publicis loses another big chunk of P&G. The chief client officer will look to lay the blame on the heads of the individual agencies. They, meanwhile, will look to their unit heads for protection. They, in turn, will blame the CCO. In-fighting will be the norm.

Thus, while Levy may think he's torn down the silos, he's replaced them with larger, more powerful, fiefdoms.

Meanwhile, I see that Levy's videos (one in French, one English) have had a combined 8,500 views between them (including me - twice). That's just over 10 pc of the Publicis Groupe workforce - not a high proportion.

Here's a suggestion for the staff when they pitch up to work in New Publicis on January 2, when none of their clients will be around. Watch the video. It'll keep Levy happy. It'll give them something to do.

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Bon Sot, Chiefdom, Noblicis on 14 Dec 2015
“I've spoken with more than a dozen senior level staffers and none of them have watched the video. They're too busy watching their backs.”

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