Inside intelligence: How Publicis Groupe will make its AI platform Marcel work

Carla Serrano explains the thinking behind Marcel, Publicis Groupe's controversial AI platform.

Inside intelligence: How Publicis Groupe will make its AI platform Marcel work

When Publicis Groupe made the shock declaration that it would be pulling its entire marketing budget for a year to invest in a new artificial intelligence-driven platform, the outcry from its creatives was immediate. Listen to Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer at Publicis Groupe, however, and she contends the move is actually a response to the demands of its employees, not an imposition on them.

Six months before the announcement, the findings of a "big group talent survey" revealed that Publicis Groupe’s "newer generation of talent" wanted to "be able to work the way [they] live", Serrano explains. While they are able to order clothes online to wear out that night and get an Uber back to their Airbnb with a few clicks of their smartphone, when it comes to the way they work, little has changed since the decade they were born, when their bosses were starting out.

"That started us thinking," Serrano, who is also chief executive of Publicis New York, says. Sitting down to talk about the plans for the first time since the project’s controversial launch in the late-afternoon heat of Cannes, she adds: "The corporate companies that are delivering an experience [for their staff] were the ones that seemed to have the most traction with the next generation. So that’s at the heart of why we started to think about our company operating more like a platform."

Serrano says she was surprised by the controversy over Publicis’ announcement, but attributes it to the news "snowballing" into other issues. Cutting the marketing budget meant the group’s agencies pulling out of awards and festivals – including Cannes. This prompted debates on the role of awards, AI "stealing" jobs and the excesses of Cannes. The day after the announcement, the share price of Ascential, Cannes Lions’ owner, fell 3.5%, and Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, said the event should be "rethought". WPP has since threatened to quit Cannes. 

Serrano presents the move as a pragmatic business decision, a company cutting back on marketing to invest in another area, something brands do all the time. 

She also dismisses the rumour that Arthur Sadoun, Publicis Groupe’s newly appointed chairman and chief executive, had dreamed up the project only the week before Cannes, during a visit to Sapient’s offices in India, as he sought to break with the era of his predecessor, Maurice Lévy. The visit did happen – and made things "much more exciting" – but Serrano insists that plans were already well under way before that point. In fact, she claims that Sapient tech specialists had begun trying to understand the functionality the platform might require and carried out some prototyping before Sadoun had even boarded the plane to India. 

We’re actually getting the best of both worlds because the brand ambassadors are strengthening their culture

"Data and systems integration" will be a huge part of making Marcel work. After all, the aim is that Marcel (named after Publicis Groupe’s founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet) will incorporate every part of the company: from HR to operations to billings to email. The vast expense required – in time and resources – lies behind the marketing cuts.

"It’s an 80,000-[people]-strong platform, which is why it’s expensive," Serrano continues. "We’re looking at putting absolutely everything into Marcel. What we might find is [that it costs] $350m and it has to end up not including some of the other systems that we already have in play. But the idea and ambition that you can’t work at Publicis without engaging with Marcel is what we’re trying to build. It’s one and the same."

While the core platform is being built, an incubator, M Labs, will test "use cases" such as creative crowdsourcing, disseminating "tissue development" ideas online in real time, knowledge sharing, insight mining and talent acquisition. The first project, already in progress, is exploring "how best to gather teams on a big transformation brief for a big client for a big global event". The use cases will allow Publicis Groupe to determine whether particular ways of working are worth implementing or new services are worth offering and how to charge for them.

A key plank of Marcel is likely to be creative crowdsourcing – finding the best creative teams or strategists for a project, regardless of the agency they work for or region they operate in. This should allow a team from Leo Burnett Thailand to devise ideas for a brief from Fallon Minneapolis, for example. It’s an opportunity the smaller markets have found "very exhilarating", Serrano says. More mature markets, such as the UK, tend to believe they already know how to "get great work" for their clients. 

So, will Marcel mean a further dilution of Publicis’ agency brands, which have already been stretched by its Power of One restructure into four solution hubs? "Yes and no," is Serrano’s answer. She says that the experience of working together has helped Publicis Groupe’s staff understand that having "divergent, beautiful collisions with a full spectrum of skillsets can be a really wonderful experience". However, it has also ignited "individualistic and tribal pride", propelling senior leaders to reinforce their internal culture and positioning.

"We’re actually getting the best of both worlds because the brand ambassadors are strengthening their culture," Serrano says. "The notion of distinctive brands is a really important part of the equation for collaboration to be fruitful.

Cause for concern

The elements of Marcel that have worried Publicis staff, as identified by Serrano, are the idea of introducing AI into the creative process and sharing ideas with marketers in real time through online tissue development. Serrano says she has spoken to "alarmists" who believe Marcel will "kill creativity" and insist that they "believe in humanity too much" to be OK with it. Her plea to them is to give Marcel time. It’s about "enabling and empowering" people, not taking away jobs, she argues.

The ultimate role of AI on the platform will depend on what works. At the very least, Serrano hopes it will be able to suggest projects to people, or groups of colleagues with whom they might work well, based on past successes and ratings. Either way, it will be a gradual process; it will take 18 months to work out whether the "patterning" in any new data is correct. The AI will also need people to use it. Five years after Omnicom’s PHD launched its crowdsourcing platform, Source, only a third of those within the business use it each week.

Publicis Groupe isn’t doing any of this on its own. Five (as yet unnamed) clients have signed up to beta tests on live briefs; by next spring, between 10 and 12 brands are likely to have tried out the platform. Meanwhile, Sapient has four tech companies and two industry partners on board to help with the build. The plan is to launch an initial version of the platform with some of the use cases embedded in it at Publicis Groupe’s VivaTech conference in June. However, it remains a three- to five-year project.

"When you think about all the industries we help all the time – whether it’s hospitality or automotive – they’ve all had massive disruptions and we haven’t," Serrano points out. "Many of those disruptions have put technology at the core. I think that we’re taking a very considered approach, a very collaborative approach, with our people, to find out what that can look like."

Scepticism among Publicis executives has largely subsided, even if some expect the end result to be similar to platforms already in the market. Ad leaders agree the way agencies work is old-fashioned and ripe for innovation. That is not to say that they are queuing up to help make Marcel work – and there is a lot to do on that front. They are happy for that pressure to fall on tech specialists, such as Chip Register, co-chief executive of Publicis.Sapient and chief executive of Sapient Consulting.

He is well used to developing global virtual systems for brands through Sapient’s "Global Distributive Delivery" model.

Aside from all the attendant chatter, and even if some of the proponents of Marcel were surprised by how high profile Sadoun chose to make the platform’s launch, Publicis has too much to lose for the project to fail. 

"Creativity is a business tool, not an indulgence," one senior leader says, speaking off the record. "We need work that people recognise. Will Marcel help? Yes. Will there be teething problems? Sure. But you know Arthur will drive it like hell. He’s a force of nature. He won’t accept it not working."  


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