The Ad Industry Is Skeptical of Publicis Groupe’s Stunning Move to Skip All Awards Shows in 2018

Many call the move 'a stunt' but predict Sadoun will follow through

Publicis Groupe's stock price had gone up by approximately 5 percent as of this afternoon.
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“Stop the presses: Publicis Groupe launches an intranet … in 2018. How will they attract and retain top talent? With a Siri?” With a bot named Marcel, apparently.

That’s one longtime industry consultant’s take on what has, so far, been the biggest news of the 2017 Cannes Lions Festival. Two days ago, Publicis Groupe CEO and chairman Arthur Sadoun announced that his network would be foregoing all awards, trade shows and other paid promotional efforts for more than a year while developing Marcel, an AI-powered “professional assistant” that it plans to launch next June at the 2018 VivaTech conference in Paris.

Sadoun’s statement stunned the trade press and many Publicis employees. According to a senior Publicis creative, Sadoun briefed his own agencies for the first time this afternoon in Cannes after leaders spent two days grumbling about how the announcement could have been handled with greater sensitivity to the many who will be directly affected.

Multiple parties called the news “a publicity stunt,” noting the irony of announcing plans to forego paid promotions during a Cannes Festival in which Publicis Groupe trails its fellow holding companies. Several also questioned Sadoun’s claim that the purpose of the move was to shift resources toward Marcel, especially given the fact that an internal memo from the head of the company’s financial services division named “2.5 percent cost synergies for 2018” as the driving factor behind the decision.

“Make no mistake, this is purely about saving money in 2018 as growth has slowed to a crawl,” wrote one Publicis executive. “The money saved from award shows isn’t going to fund [Marcel]. It’s going to the bottom line.”

Others note that the amount of money Publicis will purportedly save by sitting out next year’s Cannes festival is considerably less than the annual salary of an executive like Sadoun (who will earn $6 million in 2017).

So what does this mean for the thousands of creatives working within the global Publicis Groupe network?

A prominent global chief creative officer who spoke to Adweek on condition of anonymity agreed with the general consensus that the ad industry has too many awards shows, describing them as “expensive and out of hand.” But he still argued that such events are of crucial importance to agencies that use them to stay competitive in terms of hiring and retaining top creative talent. Employees also see awards as one of the few tools they can use to negotiate raises and advance their own careers.

Several other top creatives agreed.

“The first thing that came to mind was: This is going to hurt recruitment,” said Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the only agency leader who agreed to discuss the matter on the record for this story. “If you don’t win awards, people are less likely to want to work at your place. It’s the only way we have to keep score in the creative department.”

Creatives who work at Publicis and other networks have largely responded with anger and frustration. A group of Leo Burnett Chicago employees went so far as to place a sheet reading “Marcel” over the name of the agency’s founder outside the entrance to its flagship office in an act of protest. “Creatives are confused and concerned,” said one Leo Burnett staffer who questioned whether artificial intelligence would really help solve clients’ problems and called the announcement “tone-deaf and dehumanizing.”

“No one in our building can answer our questions,” wrote another Publicis creative, adding that this lack of communications was “not exactly a morale booster.”

On the business side, Cannes will not be the only event affected by Sadoun’s decision—assuming Publicis makes good on its promises. It remains to be seen whether network executives will attend tent-pole events such as the 4A’s Transformation and the Association of National Advertisers’ Masters of Marketing.