A 77-year-old European ad man may not be the obvious savior of Silicon Valley’s most battered brand, but Publicis’ Maurice Lévy brings to WeWork more than just a knowledge of advertising. Still, the question remains: can you ever market yourself out of an operational disaster?
In a year of quick exits and dismantled job titles, Maurice Lévy’s leap into the flames of post-Neumann WeWork came as a late but worthy contender for the prize of 2019’s most astonishing marketing appointment.
The former Publicis chief was named as the interim chief marketing and communications officer of the beleaguered ‘space-as-a-service’ company at an all-staff meeting on Friday (22 November). His estimated tenure in the position will be "a few months" at maximum, the Financial Times reported yesterday (24 November).
Softbank’s Marcelo Claure, now WeWork’s fix-it-fast chairman, also named three other appointments to the C-suite: chief transformation officer, chief product and experience officer and chief people officer. All of the new executives are white men.
Disappointment was expressed across the board with regards to the makeup of the turnaround team, particularly since its all-male board was just one of several criticisms leveled at the company when it posted its IPO filing back in August.
But reaction to the appointment of Lévy – the only hire not to have previously been employed directly by WeWork or its majority investor, Softbank – has been one of mild incredulity.
Lévy's predecessor is Robin Daniels, a Nike-clad, white-teethed “tech geek” archetype of a Bay Area marketer. Now enters a 77-year-old who has spent the vast majority of his career agency-side at one holding co, running a business model now under constant threat from the new school.
“Maurice is an ad man, so it’s unlikely he’s going to say, ‘WeWork don’t need advertising’,” said Allen Adamson, adjunct professor at NYU Stern Business and co-founder of Metaforce. “But [the company] didn’t use any advertising to build the brand in the first place.
“That’s the most astounding thing – at a time when they’re going to have to be watching every penny, they now have the fox watching the hen house.”
“He can't accept that he should be a coach not a player,” said one Publicis employee, who unsurprisingly wished to remain anonymous. Another added: “He needs to focus on his supervisory role and actually make Publicis work," referring to Lévy’s ongoing role as chairman of the group’s supervisory board.
But as the finer details of Friday’s news filtered through newsrooms, it transpired that “making Publicis work” was essentially part of the deal.
“They decided to hire Publicis to help [with] restoring trust and delivering profitable growth, and as part of this agreement Marcelo asked me to help fix the marketing and communications issues and organization, including helping [to recruit] the right people," Lévy told The Drum.
So, in a matter of weeks, WeWork has gone from quietly losing its chief marketing officer to having the strength of the world’s third-largest advertising firm at its disposal.
On top of this, the company has Publicis’ patriarch installed directly on its c-suite.
Despite the questionable business ethics of this decision – and despite Lévy’s age and background – there is a group that believes the hire is a smart move for the company.
At the front of those supporters is Sir Martin Sorrell, who told The Drum he thought the recruitment of his old Big Six rival was an “inspired move”.
Meanwhile, a senior Publicis exec noted noted Lévy’s experience as a businessperson should not be ignored or underestimated.
“I can’t imagine someone like Maurice looking at ‘just’ the marketing,” they said. “He’s way too competent in areas like investor relations and operations to be left with a classic CMO role.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Frampton Calero, the former chief executive of Havas Media Group.
“He is a master storyteller and the scale of startups touched by his Viva Tech work makes him better placed than most to advise,” said Frampton.
“Much like Facebook and Nick Clegg, Levy’s appointment suggests a desire to reframe the narrative around WeWork after a brutal write-down, and a bet on marketing as a route to achieving more cultural and global meaning beyond ‘co-working’, which is no longer fresh."
Months of media coverage and speculation have meant the WeWork brand is very much alive in the public mind. But it’s a name that’s been contaminated by 2019’s bad PR in the minds of the people it needs most – business owners looking to rent office space.
Ironically it was WeWork’s inability to sell into enough of these entrepreneurs that contributed to its downfall in the first place: the IPO filing revealed 70% of its locations were ‘immature’ as of 30 June, which it defined as susceptible to unstable occupancy and high costs.
“For many people outside of the media and tech circles, their first exposure to the WeWork brand will be through its botched IPO and assorted leadership scandals,” said Ana Milicevic, principal and co-founder of Sparrow Advisers. “They’ll need to do a lot of reframing and resetting: a path that Uber has tried, too.
“This isn’t going to be a quick process: the WeWork brand has to resonate with investors, current and new clients and current and new staff. Crafting a story that effectively speaks to each quickly is not an easy task."
But the WeWork brand had been diluted months before the IPO filing spelled out its dubious future to investors.
In January, the company had created the umbrella moniker ‘The We Company’ in a move designed to give greater equity to its various other verticals, such as WeLive (apartment rentals) and WeGrow (private schools).
Nearly one year in since the rebrand, WeGrow has closed and WeLive has been skewered and scrutinized – and subsequently stalled.
And like many tech companies pre-IPO, WeWork had failed to invest in its overarching brand beyond the aesthetic of its idiosyncratic “Do What You Love” branding and design, the majority of which was developed in-house.
It had spent heavily on performance through Facebook and Google, as well as sales support. But the upper funnel ideas – including a reported “series of videos promoting the brand” backed by Martin Scorsese and a Shark Tank-style TV show on NBC with Ashton Kutcher – never got off the ground.
Finally, WeWork now faces a problem it did not have before: competitors rushing in to claim the coworking throne for themselves. Previously, an incognito Google Search for “office space in [city]” would see WeWork ads dependably top the list. Now, the likes of Work There, Convene, Primary and even old faithful Regus are toppling its dominancy on search.
Meanwhile SquareFoot, a competitor office space company, quietly raised $16m in Series B funding while Claure was putting out the worst of WeWork’s fires. In a statement, SquareFoot said it would invest the cash in “further investments in technology, marketing, personnel, and new market expansion”.
So, what’s Lévy to do? Milicevic advises the launch of a placating campaign, one that diverts attention away from the mess at headquarters and onto the “the many businesses and entrepreneurs that use WeWork today”, in the same way Facebook has shifted to focus on the vivacity of its Groups, and Uber its drivers.
“There are success stories there that don’t have anything to do with the scandal or WeWork’s founders; letting the world know that it’s not all bad could buy some much needed good will,” she said.
The anonymous Publics exec agreed, suggesting a complete revision of its outward values. “Basically, let go of the Adam Neumann fluff,” they said, referring to the co-founder’s fantasies of running a multi-generational capitalist kibbutz and consequently being elected ‘president of the world’.
But Lévy’s most critical task will be finding a permanent chief marketing officer, goading them with a career-making challenge and – we can assume – fair remuneration.
“Maurice will bring access to some of the world's best communications talent, who will no doubt identify a strong strategy to reposition the brand and be paid well for the work,” said ID Comms’ co-founder and North American chief Tom Denford.
“But it will be in vain without some major surgery to the company operations first.”
For Denford, the CMO job is a “poisoned chalice” that, “unlike their notoriously shrinking office coffee mugs, is only going to get bigger in 2020”. Working in Manhattan, the management consultant has seen firsthand the damage done to the brand.
“When it was accelerating as a glamorous unicorn it offered some cache to the eager startup community hoping for some WeWork magic to rub off on their business,” he said. “Now the brand is wholly toxic, tenants are already reevaluating their loyalty to WeWork even before the prices inevitably go up and the service deteriorates.
“If the business still even exists a year from now it will be miraculous and in that event probably not due to anything a CMO would have a hand in or be able to take credit for. WeWork is in a hole both as a business and as a brand. This is not a job for advertising.”
Adamson agrees but believes the most critical part of the job will be the forgotten part of Lévy’s job title: communications, and internal communications in particular.
“All these kids that joined the company at a time when it had an open checkbook and gave them summer camps and free beer, and all the rest of it,” he said. “Once you turn the spigot off in a service business, employees become unhappy so customers become unhappy. The [WeWork] culture is going to come to a driving halt.
“That’s something Maurice can help with. Coming from creative agencies he’s got some of those skills to deal with difficult personalities, making sure employees – and customers – won’t run for the door.”