Feature

Robert Senior is connecting the dots at Publicis

Through Publicis Groupe's new collaborative structure, in which its UK networks 'stand apart but snap together', Robert Senior could have stumbled on the agency model of the future, he tells Maisie McCabe.

Robert Senior is connecting the dots at Publicis

As a recent Publicis Communications UK leadership meeting came to an end – well past its scheduled finish time – one of the chief executives spoke up. He wasn’t looking for the final say on an earlier argument or an excuse to get up and leave. Instead, he wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help his opposite numbers from other agencies sitting around the room.

For Robert Senior, chief executive of Publicis Communications UK and the man tasked with making
its British ad agencies work together, this was a key moment. "If someone had said to me ‘What does success look like six or seven months in?’, if I’d had the imagination that would have been it," he says. "And, actually, two things came up. And two solutions came out of that, which may or may not work. But I thought: ‘That was terrific. We’re ready to go.’"

From the moment Publicis Groupe and Omnicom called off their mega-merger in May 2014, Publicis had been under pressure. By November that year, Publicis Groupe had agreed to buy Sapient instead, but that still left the question of what to do with its legacy businesses such as Saatchi & Saatchi and Starcom Mediavest Group. A year later – amid increasing pressure from shareholders after a run of disappointing results – Publicis Groupe announced it was restructuring its business into four "solutions hubs".

Equal opportunities

In February this year, Senior was appointed to run Publicis Communications in the UK in addition to his existing role as global chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Six months on, he is sitting down to take Campaign through the successes so far.

Unfortunately, the past couple of weeks have been overshadowed by the outcry over Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts – who is also the group’s "head coach" – saying that the gender debate is "all over".

Publicis Groupe initially put him on leave pending an investigation but then Roberts, who was apparently planning to retire in May, resigned instead last Wednesday and will leave in September. Senior was still quick to distance himself from Roberts’ comments. "It is live, emotive and vital for the communications business that we continue to insist that the best people, whatever their gender, are able to achieve their potential," Senior says.

But back to the UK, where alongside Saatchi & Saatchi and Fallon, which Senior co-founded in 1998, his fiefdom includes: Publicis Worldwide and its assorted sister agencies such as PR shop MSLGroup, contract publisher August, Chemistry, Poke, Drugstore, Vivid Brand and design consultancy Nurun; Leo Burnett, with Atelier, Arc and Holler; design specialist Turner Duckworth; and production hub Prodigious. The chief executives of the main agencies, plus leaders in HR, finance and marketing, now meet for a "crunchy" meeting once a month.

"It’s not ‘Kumbaya, my Lord’. It’s not high-fiving and it’s not platitudes," Senior explains. "It’s a proper business meeting across the piste. But it’s remarkably collaborative."

One of the changes Senior has already instituted is the appointment of Larissa Vince, chief growth officer at Saatchi & Saatchi and former deputy editor of Campaign, as chief marketing officer of Publicis Communications. Senior says, in her new role leading marketing across the group units, Vince will be "paid to be agnostic". When an opportunity comes into the group, she will be able to ask: "Who is the right team? Where do we base this pitch or this project?"

The idea is that instead of an agency trying to be a one-stop shop, clambering to provide as many different services as it can to brands, it turns to sister companies that are specialists in the area. "It allows us to get the best answer we have in front of the client rather than go: ‘Oh, we can probably do that,’" Senior explains. "Old-school was: ‘Yeah, we can probably do that. Yeah, we’ve got some good designers. Yeah, we’ve got some ecommerce. We’ve got some social…’"

For example, instead of creative agencies trying to do design, they can turn to the designer of the Amazon logo, Turner Duckworth. Its Chiswick and San Francisco teams are currently "re-engineering and revisiting the Walmart visual language" after Publicis picked up the Walmart integrated account in the US in July. "It’s a great example of when you have the specialists who are world-class, they’re absolutely my first point of call," Senior says.

The parameters and scope

In order to get this new approach fully functioning, Senior explains, he needs "intellectual honesty" from everyone involved. For example, it might make sense to move to one "centre of excellence" if some specialisms – such as shopper marketing or CRM – are replicated in a number of agencies or group companies.

"Rather than have one or two experts in four offices, have one group of world-class specialists that serve the four offices," Senior says.

Instead of being a merger of teams, Senior prefers to describe the potential changes as refining the
"parameters and scope" of each agency, although he concedes that they might end up with a single shopper agency. Senior says he has been "surprised and reassured how well the teams are collaborating" so far. It might be because at the core of the whole plan is a single profit-and-loss account for the entire group, so everyone is incentivised to make it work.

Senior says: "You have a group where each team stands apart. Proudly stands apart. But when there’s an opportunity, we snap together. Stand apart, snap together. Get the right people in the room orbiting the right opportunity or the right business problem and we’ll get the best answer we possibly can as opposed to the best answer that any one of our units could muster up within its walls."

It’s the way Saatchi & Saatchi and Zenith already work with Toyota. Senior describes it as a "full, integrated team under one roof that can draw in experts in fields such as employee engagement, crisis management or corporate communications" from sister group MSL when they’re needed, for example. The changes have so far made the biggest impact on existing shared clients such as EE, which works with Chemistry, Poke and Saatchi & Saatchi.

The collaboration extends beyond common retained relationships, however. In March, Publicis launched Sapient Inside as a way to bring tech specialists from the digital and data shops in the Publicis.Sapient division into creative agencies. Senior says GlaxoSmithKline is looking at developing the structure for the brands it houses in Publicis Communications, following the end of its global roster review last month, and HSBC has started to use the flexibility too.

"Sapient Inside is possibly the most exciting thing that’s been done," Senior says. "And it genuinely offers up an answer to the tedious question that people are being asked, which is: ‘What’s the agency model?’ I think this might be towards a genuine answer. It’s a bridge between a brand promise and customer experience or the alchemy between creativity and enterprise technology. At times of uncertainty, that proposition is more and not less interesting."

Perversely – because he’s in "proper bereavement" personally – Senior believes this new structure is particularly Brexit-friendly. Working together as Publicis Communications, under one P&L, will be a "much more measurable and accountable and ergonomic way of doing business" for clients, he believes. It will help marketers manage a team that is "genuinely integrated and working together" in a way that’s "not funding six different overheads".

That said, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London currently sits outside of the UK structure – although Senior says he has had a couple of meetings with Neil Munn, global chief executive of BBH since August 2014. BBH has a legal agreement guaranteeing its autonomy until 2022 and Senior won’t be drawn on whether the agency will be drawn into the fold: "They’ve only just reorganised themselves. So it was rightly felt that they should be left for that to bed in."

The need to rebalance

It is clear that after five years of international roles – he became EMEA chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Group in January 2011 and then global chief executive at the start of 2015 – Senior is relishing rolling his sleeves up and getting involved in UK client business again. The UK role is taking up a lot of his time, and could get more complicated if there is further integration with media, but he might need to rebalance to give the global Saatchi & Saatchi job some attention too.

Initial results are strong, with the entire UK business up 3.6% in the second quarter of 2016 compared with a 0.7% decline in the first three months. Global organic revenue growth was 2.6% during the April to June period, ahead of analyst expectations. Maurice Lévy, chairman and chief executive of Publicis Groupe, says the changes that have been put in action are working extremely well: "It’s positive in the UK, it’s positive in Germany, France, Italy, Spain."

Both Senior and Lévy seem to be genuinely impressed with how well the restructure of Publicis Groupe has gone so far. As a keen skier and cyclist – who runs a chalet business on the side – Senior has always managed to juggle many competing demands on his time. He is deftly handling two challenging roles at the moment. Could they be a rehearsal for another big job on the horizon?

What gives us the edge

by Robert Senior


1. Interdependence

Our competitors operate their agencies either independently or co-dependently. Interdependence is more than an operating structure – it’s a flexible, fast-moving culture across the group that means we stand apart but snap together against a client need.

2. Client focus

Everything we do is built, created and implemented with the client at the heart. It’s the premise on which Publicis Communications was formed.

3. We lead with our agency brands

The lead brand can then engage capabilities from across the group to deliver complex answers for clients to what, increasingly, are complex business problems.

4. Sapient Inside

No other group has created an entity designed to lead business transformation through matching creativity and customer understanding with enterprise technology. But it’s what many of our clients are asking for.

5. One UK P&L

We are incentivised as businesses to work together. For us, collaboration with the client at the centre is business-critical.

6. Belief in creativity

An utter, focused and fundamental belief in the business value that creativity brings. Without that, the rest is meaningless.