If Arthur Sadoun’s tenure at the helm of Publicis Groupe’s is to mirror the illustrious career that got him there then he will need to convince clients it can offer full-service, integrated solutions despite being split into four distinct silos.
As Publicis chief Maurice Levy’s successor was announced yesterday (27 January) few in the industry would have been surprised in his choice of replacement – Arthur Sadoun.
In just over a decade with the agency group he has risen through the ranks with impressive speed under the guidance of Levy, becoming chief executive of Publicis Conseil in 2006 and chief of Publicis France just three years later. By 2011 he was managing director of Publicis Worldwide before taking on the top job at Publicis Worldwide in 2013.
During the restructure of Publicis in 2015, it was Sadoun that was given the task of overseeing the new Publicis Communications hub which comprised all the group's creative networks: MSLGroup, Publicis Worldwide, Nurun, Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, as well as BBH and Marcel - a move that seemed to make him one of the frontrunners to replace Levy when he eventually stepped down.
With such fierce ambition, he has earned himself a reputation for what one industry source described to The Drum as “ruthless management” of the agency’s talent. Even Levy described him in a statement on the imminent promotion as “a man whose impatience is common knowledge but also a token of his demanding nature”.
But this temperament has inevitably ruffled feathers as he’s taken greater charge. And as Sadoun’s vision for the agency has crystalised - compounded by the closer he got to the chief executive role – a number of senior executives have departed.
Shortly after Sadoun took control, MSLGroup managing director Andrew Silver left after running its New York office for just under two years.
Last August, Saatchi & Saatchi New York's chief Brent Smart chief creative officer Jay Benjamin departed. One month later, BBH North America boss Pat Lafferty and New York chief creative officer Ari Weiss also departed.
And this month, Saatchi and Saatchi’s global chief executive Robert Senior announced he would also step down from his role.
But as Cindy Gallop, founder of Publicis-owned BBH New York told The Drum, it was the controversial but cutthroat departure of Kevin Roberts that Sadoun demonstrated that as having a more client focused business, he wanted to see a more diverse one as well.
Under his watch, Kate Stanners was promoted to global chief creative officer of the Saatchi & Saatchi network last year, while earlier this month Sadoun picked the UK chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Magnus Djaba to replace Senior.
“I was impressed with his swift and condemnatory response to Kevin Roberts' remarks about gender last summer. As he said in his internal email to Publicis, "What matters is not words but acts'," said Gallop.
"So I look forward to seeing him drive far more gender and racial diversity within Publicis Groupe's senior ranks than currently exists - not for the optics, but to bring a female lens and an ethnically diverse lens to deliver genuinely disruptive innovation in the future.”
Diverse disruption could be what’s needed to make Publicis Groupe’s ‘Power of One’ model come to life, particularly when it comes to replacing the wave of creative and strategic talent that has left the group over the last 18 months.
But at its heart, this model has been created with Levy’s succession in mind.
“What the ‘Power of One’ structure does is cement his [Sadoun’s] control of the business before he even gets the job. It’s ‘One Publicis’ and ‘One CEO’,” suggested Richard Pinder, currently chief at CP+B London but who spent much of his career at Publicis, including nearly five years at Publicis Worldwide as chief operating officer.
“There were not many people that saw themselves as CEO contenders and normally with a succession that’s the biggest issue. To run something so [big] even a young Levy would struggle so what you need to do is get as much organisation structure as you can and saying “it’s one, don’t forget it” is a big way of doing that. It was a spider’s web organisation under Maurice and if you’re going to hand over [a business] it can’t be a spiders web, it’s messy. Arthur has been there 10 years but his connections are still not that strong so to cement the control you have Publics One and a structure that can be drawn on a chart.”
As long as Sadoun’s to-do-list will undoubtedly be, those initial tasks are miniscule compared to the seismic one of selling the Publics Groupe integrated model to clients. Much of Levy’s final year was spent establishing the group’s ‘Power of One’ approach. But it will be down to Sadoun to define how a business with more than 80,000 is capable of pulling on creative (Publicis Communications), media (Publicis Media), digital strategy (Publicis Sapient) and Publicis Healthcare (health services) whatever the brief.
And yet to date the only real prominent advertiser to buy into Publicis Groupe’s ‘Power of One’ is Walmart. The irony of the world’s third largest advertising group claiming it can be fleet-of-foot enough to flex with industry headwinds won’t be lost on big spending marketers and Sadoun will need to cut out the fluff and deliver if more are to follow in Walmart’s footsteps.
The early signs suggest that’s exactly what he’ll do. As chief executive of Publicis’ creative agencies, Sadoun made it known from the outset of his tenure that he wanted to recapture the entrepreneurial, creative spirit that once enticed the likes of McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble but have both recently pulled back investment from the group.
Heineken, which scooped the Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year gong, saw something in Sadoun’s vision, with the Frenchman said to have played a key role in convincing the brewer to make Publicis its lead global creative agency last year. There was also the somewhat miraculous feat he pulled in getting one of the most iconic American brands – Cadillac – to ditch an agency from its heartland in favour of a French one in 2015.
Amazing as they are, his achievements need to be the foundation of something bigger. Sadoun once boiled his plan for Publicis Worldwide (when he led it) down to consistency; he said that was key to positioning Publicis Worldwide as the “most strategic network within the creative environment” and “making sure we have the right processes and tools”. It won’t be a surprise to see his view of advertising spread throughout the group from June, particularly as he attempts to set the right KPIs, demonstrate ROI, recruit fresh talent and generate big ideas through the right processes.
Of all these areas, people and performance will be key to his tenure matching up to his two predecessors; if Publicis Groupe is to show integration can work at scale then he will need both to disprove the claim that nothing gets done by committee – as shown when he pushed the group’s creative agencies not to believe they could solve all a client’s problems by themselves. Instead, he wanted one agency to feel incentivised by the expertise of another and not to want to fight each other for budgets, hence the decision to create one P&L for the UK creative agencies.
Demanding as his management style seems to be, it is arguably what’s needed to ensure Publicis Groupe thrives amidst such a transitional time for the industry. Whether its clients rethinking the role of agencies as the likes of Google and Facebook wield more influence or question marks over how agencies make money, the business of advertising is changing and so to must Publicis Groupe’s strategy if Sadoun is to cap off what has been his illustrious rise to the top.
Additional reporting by Seb Joseph.