Feature

One has the power: What Publicis Groupe's Annette King will do with it

Publicis Groupe UK's first ever chief executive, Annette King, may not have been in Cannes, but she has had plenty to occupy her time since taking up the role.

Annette King: Publicis Groupe UK’s first ever chief executive
Annette King: Publicis Groupe UK’s first ever chief executive

When Campaign meets Annette King, the inaugural chief executive of Publicis Groupe UK, she is reflecting on her first four weeks in the role and what she’ll be doing in her fifth week, which coincides with the annual Cannes creative beano.

Publicis agencies have, of course, been verboten from attending this year – the money the business would normally spend on Cannes has been apportioned to developing its AI platform, Marcel.

So what will King be doing instead? "I’ll be working hard on client business," she replies with a slight grin, presumably knowing how trite such a corporate answer to that question sounds from someone who has a reputation for enjoying a good party (as well as working hard on client business, of course).

That’s the thing about King – there’s no politicking or insincerity. What you see is what you get. It’s this mixture of the serious and the fun that has always marked her out from her peer group. It’s also why she’s the perfect antidote to all those handwringers and naysayers who think that advertising is no longer an attractive business for new talent.

If you put King, with her enthusiasm, energy, amazing work rate and wicked sense of fun, in front of a bunch of school-leavers or graduates, the industry’s perceived recruitment problem would probably be solved overnight.

Does she think of herself as a role model? "I hope I can be a role model to women. I hope I can be a role model to everyone," she says. It’s little wonder, then, that Arthur Sadoun, Publicis Groupe chairman and chief executive, turned to her when he wanted someone to bring Publicis’ "Power of One" proposition to life and to make sure that the integration across its multiple agency brands actually happened.

I hope i can be a role model to women. I hope I can be a role model to everyoneAnnette King

Prising King from her former home at Ogilvy – a place where she had spent 17 years of her career, rising to run Ogilvy UK’s 10 operating companies and frequently dressed in Ogilvy’s red corporate colours – proved surprisingly easy. She won’t be drawn on the reasons for her departure, although there were rumours of friction between her and the instigators of the new Ogilvy structure being imposed by her boss, John Seifert, in New York.

Even now, King occasionally slips between calling Publicis "they" and Ogilvy "we", although she looks at home in her vast new office, previously occupied by Robert Senior.

Whatever the reality, King doesn’t want to talk about Ogilvy – or the reasons for her departure – and says that the Publicis job came about because Sadoun sent her a text message inviting her to meet for breakfast (maybe it was serendipity). "I chose to come to Publicis. Arthur offered me the job and it was too exciting to say no to – it was a bigger job and [I would be] working for him."

For his part in this mutual love-in, Sadoun says: "Annette is an inspiring and formidable figure in the industry and I knew she would be the perfect leader. Her wealth of experience, plus her sheer talent and transformational leadership, will be vital in accelerating the country model roll-out."

So what else has been occupying King’s first few weeks other than not drinking rosé and networking in the south of France? Her first initiative was an Elizabeth I-style "progress", a tour taking in all the agency brands that make up her fiefdom (or should that be King-dom?) where the agency leaders were invited to talk about their proposition and best work.

Publicis insiders were reassured by her visit and say it went well, acting as a counterpoint to those who thought her (rather unfairly awarded) nickname"AK-47" would result in a full-on assault.

Those who have worked for King in the past say that she is not a micro-manager and is smart enough to leave her leadership teams to handle their own businesses – at least until a problem comes up, at which point she will be there to take decisive action. 

For the time being, there has been no fire-fighting, and King’s focus has been on identifying and then "empowering people within each agency to pull down any silos that might have existed". To assist her in this task, she will be assembling a small management team to work across all the group’s companies. Some of this is already in motion.

Publicis Groupe UK is arranged around four "solution hubs" (woe betide anyone who calls them "silos"): Publicis Communications, Publicis Media, Publicis.Sapient and Publicis Health – with the latter three each having its own leader. King says that the key to making them work together more closely is to share talent, resources and, ultimately, clients. "I need to make sure there’s the right set-up – and where we can add value," she adds. The appointment of a leader for Publicis Communications solution hub is something she is giving consideration to.

The UK ad market is going through big change but Publicis Groupe is ahead of the curveAnnette King

Given that Publicis Groupe UK comprises 5,000 people and nearly 20 agency brands and sub-brands, one might think that some rationalisation might be on the cards. King denies this, at least for now. "The brands are really important part of the model. They all have their own distinctive cultures. It’s really important that the brands stay very much alive. You can feel the difference in culture between solution hubs. But what I’ve been delighted by is the consistency of the ‘Power of One’ and the direction of delivery," she says.

And what does she make of the market as a whole? "The UK ad market is going through big change – client transformations, consultancies – but Publicis Groupe is ahead of the curve as it has already started its transformation."

She is particularly enthusiastic about Publicis.Sapient, which, in a neat turn of events, is trying to park its tanks on the consultancy lawns. "The comms business is going through slightly more challenge but we can readjust with others, while media is very busy. My focus is growth – growth, growth, growth," she says.

And with that, this epitome of the "power of one" in human form, smiles and heads off to get on with working hard on client business.

The question is…

How I got into advertising
I met a Swedish guy in a pub in Swindon when I was 22 and he knew someone who knew someone and was kind enough to send an introductory letter…

Best advice I have received
If you can, sleep on it.

Advice I would give others
Work out what really matters to you and choose a place to work that suits, even if it takes a bit longer to find.

Favourite ad
British Airways "Magic of flying"

Favourite TV show
The Sopranos

Last book I read
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Interests outside work
My kids, going to Italy, art – buying it and having a go myself.

Topics