“You’re letting that fucking thing make a mockery of this industry by writing about it,” shouted one agency chief at a member of The Drum’s team while in the south of France at a certain advertising festival last year.
“That fucking thing” in question was Marcel – the artificial intelligence platform being developed by Publicis Groupe and the risky idea implemented by its highly enthusiastic chief executive, Arthur Sadoun, announced during Cannes Lions in 2017.
Back then, it wasn’t the platform itself that caused a stir. It was more Sadoun's accompanying announcement that his company would not be spending money on awards or events for the coming year in order to fund it.
A year later, The Drum was in situ for its unboxing at an elaborate event in Paris that evoked the mood of an Apple keynote but with less enthusiastic whooping and a surprising sense of fun and self-effacement instead. The platform wasn’t yet ready to roll out despite that being the original due date, but it was beta tested as planned by 1,000 employees all around the world.
Marcel, named after Publicis Groupe's founder, is intended to help the Groupe practise 'The Power of One' mantra that it preaches. In essence, it is a tool that marries client briefs with the best placed Publicis people based on their skillsets and experience, sorted by its algorithm.
After the year-long beta test, lessons have been learned and the Marcel developers have begun again, using insights and ideas taken from the feedback received. One change is the ability to operate the app using tap and voice rather than its original voice-operated-only vision.
The UK has been chosen as the place to hold a country-specific trial next, and after only a few weeks early word has been mixed. Skepticism persists internally about whether it will really be adopted throughout the ranks.
One person convinced it will is Dawn Winchester, the president of Marcel, who is evidently passionate about the aims of the project as it enters its third phase.
“We have chosen the pilot programme because they represented all of our solution hubs," she says. "Publicis Communications, Publicis Sapient, Publicis Media and Publicis Health are all there in significant and robust ways so we thought it was a good reflection of our business.
“The other thing that is important for us is that we are going to get real-world behaviour now. Beta was great because we were able to test the technology and the data and things like that. But because it was a distributed beta, we got learnings about the technology but we didn’t necessarily get learnings about the behaviour of our employees when they work with Marcel in a real-world situation.”
On why the UK operation, led by country chief executive Annette King, is seen as being the ideal testing ground, she adds: “What is great about going into the UK is that we will have 5,000 people who work together, are sharing clients together, are sharing business development together, and we think that we are going to learn a lot more about how we can help in that real-world solution where we get a lot more real-world data.”
Before the end of the year the US team is also set to meet Marcel in full, Winchester reveals, with a web version of the platform due at the end of June also.
Winchester characterises the response to Marcel from staff and clients, including Walmart and GlaxoSmithKline, which saw the platform as the differentiation factor when appointing Publicis Media last October, as one of "curiosity". Some clients have even asked about developing a similar platform to integrate into their own workflows, she says.
“People are really curious and they want to get their hands on it. They want to understand how it works and what benefit they can get out of it. Even though it is early days the signs of usage are quite encouraging, we are beating the benchmarks that we had in terms of the engagement. We have got a large number of people who have downloaded the app and connected it to LinkedIn where we are bringing in data to match people.”
Marcel will change based on how it fares in the real world trials. “It always needs to be responsive to the business environments, the new types of creatives coming in and partners, so if it isn’t changing we are not doing our job,” says Winchester. "[The users] will be the ones to tell us what this should do and how it should work."
Emmanuel André, chief talent officer for Publicis Groupe, adds that now the next test has begun, the use of Marcel will "hopefully never end".
“If you look at the first versions of the platforms we use today like Facebook or Instagram, you wouldn’t believe what they could do," he says. "The new normal declares itself every day and we can already see it in the way Marcel is evolving."
Asked what success constitutes for Marcel, André responds that it is down to the level of engagement and the spirit of community that it inspires across each country. “When we really have people of different cultures and different backgrounds who naturally co-exist and connect on a daily basis.. when it becomes not a project but an operating principle of this company... and when clients see it as something that Publicis as an entire company does in the way that we resource the problems that we are asked to solve.”
On paper, the creation of an AI interface to help advertising holding companies more efficiently deploy resource sounds like exactly what they need as they grapple with pressures on their business model.
The creation of this platform may one day be seen as a masterstroke that helped Publicis forge ahead of its competitors – or be ammunition for those same rivals to condemn it as a folly. Time will tell, but for now it's obvious Publicis still believes in this technology as being a gamechanger. Who's to say others won’t begin building their own version in years to come?