A warning for those plotting a digital shopping spree

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LBi London's office was transformed last week into a mini conference suite populated by sharp-elbowed suits. Publicis Groupe was showing off its recent acquisition of Shoreditch geek chic by using its Brick Lane basement as a venue for an investor day.

City folk were offered the hard sell from 25 or so of Publicis’ agency chiefs from around the world. The session was a reminder that analysts are so focused on the hard figures, right down to reductions in staff flight costs, that the shiny ad campaigns Leo Burnett or Saatchi & Saatchi create just pass them by.

With this in mind, it was unsurprising that the majority of questions were thrown at the media executives on parade, Starcom MediaVest Group’s Laura Desmond and ZenithOptimedia’s Steve King. They both unleashed an armoury of stats coupled with sharp insights on media owners: the two things analysts seem to crave. The biggest headline to emerge from the day, aside from the global ad forecast from ZenithOptimedia (adjusted to a rise of 3.9 per cent this year) and SMG’s deal with Twitter, involved Publicis’ investment ambitions.

The group plans to spend around €500 million a year, up until 2018, on acquisitions. The focus will be placed on bagging tech and software businesses in emerging economies. "Look at Neeve," Maurice Lévy, the chief executive of Publicis, told me when asked what to expect. Neeve is a Bangalore-based technology services company that Publicis acquired a fortnight ago.

While it’s hard to argue with the wisdom of a tech-based acquisition spree, doubters quibble that there are flaws in this strategy – that the main groups, and Publicis in particular, are neglecting their core advertising agency assets, raiding them as profit centres to fund international expansion while giving very little back.

Technology is in danger of effacing content rather than facilitating it. At least Publicis is creating a backlash

This argument doesn’t entirely stack up. Saatchis, for instance, recently received considerable investment to acquire the digital agency Outside Line. A deal that perhaps enabled Saatchis’ European supremo, Robert Senior, to boast at the Publicis beano of his agency’s creation of a "real-time social hub" for its client EE.

Yet while this kind of stuff is manna to the money men, it leaves some in what used to be called the advertising business rather cold. Lévy is quite entitled to argue that "to only focus on storytelling is finished". But such rhetoric from network bosses might explain why so many talented advertising people are jumping ship to launch their own businesses.

Technology is in danger of effacing content rather than facilitating it. But at least the obsessive desire of Publicis and its ilk to swim "upstream" to compete with the likes of Accenture is creating a backlash. An ideas and content-focused movement that can’t be balanced against any travel budget.

ian.darby@haymarket.com         
@darbs73

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