Amanda Morrissey leads Publicis Media 'rewiring'

Publicis Media's UK chief executive talks to Gideon Spanier about why the transformation agenda makes sense.

Morrissey: ‘I see it as less “holy crap!” and more “it’s for us to design it for our clients and our markets”’
Morrissey: ‘I see it as less “holy crap!” and more “it’s for us to design it for our clients and our markets”’

The Lowdown

Age: Never you mind
Lives: Poole, Dorset
Family: Husband, four lovely children and two dogs
Favourite media: The Guardian and BBC News apps, BuzzFeed, Wired, I-D, Stranger Things, Peaky Blinders
Favourite ad: I’m a sucker for Christmas ads. My kids are in love with Buster
Interests: Wakeboarding, surfing, snowboarding and anything death-defying
One thing not a lot of people know: I have a black belt in judo

When Amanda Morrissey arrived as an outsider with no media agency experience to run Publicis Groupe’s UK planning and buying operation in April, she was entering unknown territory. "It’s been brilliant," the former UK general manager of AKQA says. "But it’s not what I expected when I arrived."

Morrissey’s first task has been to simplify the media offering. She has split Starcom Mediavest Group and ZenithOptimedia and turned them back into four standalone agencies – Starcom, Mediavest, Zenith and Blue 449 – as part of a global shake-up. Add to that the creation of seven group practices covering areas including trading, data and analytics, and the mind boggles at how she makes that matrix of reporting lines and internal politics work.

"We’ve had to rewire the house with the lights on," Morrissey – who joined as UK chief executive of Publicis Media, a new role in a new division – says.

"I see it as less ‘holy crap!’ and more ‘it’s for us to design it for our clients and our markets’. That’s quite liberating. I am forever the optimist."

Her watchword is "transformation". It is what Publicis Media needs and it’s what brands want, she suggests. "I believe we’ll be a technology business in three years’ time," Morrissey declares. "We’ve got to structure our business like this and to partner with clients."

She brings a client’s perspective after serving as marketing director of sports clothing brand Animal, and an understanding of digital transformation from her most recent role at AKQA, where she worked from 2011 and looked after Barclays, Marks & Spencer, Mondelez International and Vodafone.

"I don’t believe transformation is about organisational change," Morrissey says. "It’s about: what does the future look like? What are you transforming your business around? How are we going to get there over the next two or three years?"

But trying to pin her down on what transformation looks like at Publicis Media is less easy. "You live it ‘in live’ every day," she says.

One example was the launch of a media optimisation tool, developed in-house, that helps brands decide when to move their spend between channels. Another was ensuring a global client could switch UK media agency within the group – something that internal silos would have made almost impossible previously, Morrissey explains.

Iain Jacob, EMEA chief executive of Publicis Media, says the fact that Morrissey is an outsider is a plus. Agencies are facing such disruption that they need a broader range of talent if they are "to prevail", he says, speaking days after Accenture bought Karmarama.

"Amanda has brought digital and data-first experience from her AKQA days, client empathy having been one and a great energy in her leadership style," Jacob continues. "All of this is highly complementary to the vastly experienced and successful agency leaders that we already have in place."

When Morrissey’s job was announced, Phil Georgiadis, chairman of Blue 449, was named UK chairman of Publicis Media, with a brief to be a "strategic advisor" to her. He continues to offer "great experience and perspective", Morrissey says, but the chatter is that she prefers to chart her own course.

Morrissey maintains that "the power has to sit with the agency brands", despite running a centralised operation. Her most notable move has been to promote Rachel Forde from running the Procter & Gamble account to be chief executive of Mediavest in November. Asked how Starcom and Mediavest will differ from each other following the separation, Morrissey says: "Watch and wait."

There is a sense that she may have found it easier to persuade clients about transformation than some of Publicis Media’s 1,300 UK staff. "Clients really get it quickly – it’s less personal, less scary," she explains. "They say: ‘Why haven’t we done this earlier?’"

She is holding lots of staff meetings, often in groups of ten or fewer, because she finds that people are reluctant to speak up in big gatherings. "I don’t believe in egos," she adds. Blue 449 has been Publicis Media’s most successful UK agency this year, winning more than £100m in billings, including Asda and Weight Watchers. Both accounts are run in partnership with sister creative shop Saatchi & Saatchi – evidence, perhaps, that Publicis Groupe’s new integrated "matrix" structure is working.

However, Toyota was unhappy about a similar deal with Saatchi & Saatchi and Zenith and moved its pan-European business last month.

Given Blue 449’s growth, it might be logical for Publicis Media to buy the 25% still held by M&C Saatchi, four years after the initial sale. On this Morrissey states: "I can’t comment." ISBA has raised questions about transparency at media agencies and urged advertisers to tighten their contracts, but Morrissey argues it has not been a big issue for Publicis Media. "We haven’t seen a real tightening down on contracts," she says. "Our clients expect us to be working in their best interests to deliver the best products and the best value as well as buying power." She adds that this applies to all clients, "whatever size they are".

Morrissey doesn’t think the business model is broken, of course, but believes media agencies must evolve. There has already been "phenomenal" change and "it’s going to get faster", she says: "It does mean new commercial models with our clients."

Former clients and colleagues are broadly positive about Morrissey. An old AKQA client from a FTSE 100 brand calls her "very bright" and "very strategic" but found her "tense" in some meetings. Asked for his view of Morrissey, Ajaz Ahmed, founder and chief executive of AKQA, says: "We’re proud of our AKQA alumni and it’s always wonderful to hear about their career development."

Morrissey is the daughter of two entrepreneurs and grew up in Birmingham before reading European Studies at Hull.

She commutes into the office daily from Poole – a two-hour-plus journey each way: "I’m used to it. I can think. When you’re ‘in transformation’, it gives you headspace. The biggest mistake is to go from meeting to meeting."

Morrissey and her husband, a writer, like living by the sea, where they go wakeboarding with their children at weekends. She learned to waterski at the age of seven and loves "the adrenaline rush".

That fearless streak will be needed at work. "Transformation is not easy. It’s bloody hard, fast and precarious," Morrissey says. "We’ll get there. The biggest thing is it has to be through our people."