About 20 years ago I was sitting in Maurice Levy's office in Paris on a "Rising Stars" Publicis leadership course. We had been introduced to the ageing but extraordinary founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet at the beginning of a week of MBA-like case history study and coaching.
The remarkable culture came right from the top. I went back to Paris a lot during my time as a Publicis girl and the feeling of belonging got stronger; I felt like part of the family. Several years after I left I saw Maurice again and he said in that deeply attractive French accent "Ah Suki, we let you slip away, how we can get you back?" I am sure he says that to all the girls (and boys) but it is that people touch that makes Maurice, and our industry, special.
Indeed, the agency world is so much about people and culture. Like me, many in our industry have worked for several of the big networks. I began and finished my career in advertising at Omnicom's DDB and worked for WPP Y&R in Asia, and have met some of the smartest and nicest people in the business. However, the trouble with mergers is that agencies find themselves having to suddenly love those people that they have challenged for so long, a task that is difficult between agencies in the same network, let alone those from different ones.
So, we have two heavyweights who want to tie the knot but whose families and step-families would not normally be trusted to be invited to a wedding as they would be the first to start a fight. So, once the champagne corks have popped, what are we left with?
The benefits for clients
The agencies have been quick with their missives to suggest nothing will change and most clients have reflected that there appears to be no immediate impact on them. But isn't that the opposite of what should happen? Surely there is no point in getting bigger if there is no discernible difference, and while cost savings of $500m may make the business more efficient how does this benefit clients?
Michelle McEttrick, managing director, brand and activation, global retail banking at Barclays suggests: "We get tremendous value from our agencies, less so from the networks and holding companies many of them are part of. While the shareholder value is clear in further consolidation, holding companies will need to be ever more vigilant to balance client value with market and shareholder value."
The vision and values of the two businesses are quite different: Julian Metcalfe founder of Pret a Manger and Itsu said recently at an Oystercatcher Club event: "If you have to write down your vision and values then you don't have any..." The challenge for the new Publicis Omnicom Group is to create one holding group vision that is meaningful and can play at a global level and provide a joined up solution for clients. Something that really only WPP has historically done well.
Patrick Jubb, global marketing and communications director, Land Rover suggests: "We are aligned to WPP for two main reasons: we use agencies who are specialists in different fields, but who work together in a supportive way; we don’t have to brow beat them into doing this and although they have different expertise there is a shared group culture that I like and value. If however in one part of the world there is a cultural fit issue or a conflict, I can move to a different group agency with greater ease and without having to change the whole group structure."
In past mergers we have seen talent move out of big companies into start-up and smaller networks, and today there is a general trend of businesses wanting more flexible approaches and solutions. Havas and many independents are rubbing their hands with glee at the potential opportunity for new talent and disaffected and conflict driven clients entering the market.
Matt Atkinson, chief marketing officer, Tesco, said: "We are looking for agencies who can bring outstanding talent and creativity to bear, to help us bring to life the things we are doing to improve life for customers. We want partners who can do this in a compelling, modern and innovative way, fit for the new world. For us culture, creativity and talent are a key element we look for in an agency partnership. I wonder and worry about whether the scale of a merged business of this nature can really achieve that."
Investing in people
Most, but not all agencies, have under-invested over the years in their people. Few run comprehensive programmes of talent building and development, certainly on the scale of a company like Google, where we see people and innovation still at the heart of the business. Caroline Chayot, director of talent, Google Europe, said: "Innovation is at the heart of everything; when a small team of people has a new idea, our executive get around them to support and nurture it to grow and make a difference."
Maurice Levy is nothing but bold and brave and this charm offensive may prove to be the very thing that drives our industry forward. With an initial lukewarm response from industry and shareholders, it may make the two giants try even harder to make it work.
Certainly WPP, Havas, IPG, et al will be looking at ways to help it fail. But if this brave new partnership means talent is nurtured and trusted and that client relationships are treasured and invested in, then the whole communications industry could work more effectively in providing truly customer and content centric solutions to clients globally. That will mean it has been a great success.