More Agencies Are Finding Their Own Entrepreneurial Spirit by Partnering With Startups

Publicis Groupe, WPP bring fresh ideas back to clients

As clients continue to demand more—more content, more impressions, more innovation—the largest agencies are taking some of their best lessons from smaller shops just getting started.

From WPP to Publicis Groupe, global players increasingly are looking to more nimble digital startups where an entrepreneurial spirit is at the core of the business.

It is becoming an important way for agencies to tap into the innovation that brands require, insiders say.

Publicis' latest such investment comes in the form of a global competition, dubbed Publicis90. The initiative will fund 90 projects with 10,000 to 500,000 euros ($11,000 to $550,000) and offer one year of mentorship.

The effort is meant to demonstrate that Publicis is a digital force to be reckoned with. "Following the acquisition of Sapient, it is a way to really give flesh to and to show we are at the heart of digital ecosystems," said Maxime Baffert, CEO of Publicis digital agency Proximedia Europe. "There's also a huge interest from clients about everything regarding digital transformation."

Publicis joins a host of industry ventures already underway, including WPP and Bruin Sports Capital's investment in Courtside Ventures, a venture capital firm working with startup stage tech and media companies focused in sports, and the R/GA-sponsored Start-up Academy at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Publicis90 will not focus solely on any one sector—ad tech, mobile, Fintech or otherwise—but Publicis Groupe employees will participate in the first round of voting to ensure the ideas will have relevance for clients.

The key, Baffert said, is to deliver "an idea that is absolutely incredible," whether it be a connected machine from Kuantom that learns a person's preferred tastes and serves drinks tailored to those preferences or Damappa, a company that uses design to present complex data in easy-to-understand graphs. Both are among 3,000 ideas in the running.

A key element of the competition will be the year-long mentorship and guidance from Publicis executives, as startups can find it tough to break into the agency world.

At last year's Cannes Lions Start-up Academy, Claus Moberg's company, SnowShoe, gained valuable advice on everything from which holding companies own which agencies and how to explain what the company does in layman's terms to how large companies make purchasing decisions.

The knowledge Moberg and his company came away with perfectly fits the mission of Rob Dembitz, head of Cannes Lions Innovation, which created the academy with R/GA.

"The beauty was the startups made new connections, found new investors and found new revenue," said Dembitz.

Just as important, say those involved: fresh ideas agencies were able to take back to their clients.

Nearly a year after Cannes Lions, SnowShoe has worked on several agency pitches and will soon have a few campaigns rolling out with agencies it became acquainted with at the festival. (SnowShoe CEO Claus Moberg declined to identify any of the agencies with which it has worked.)

The company creates 3-D pieces of plastic called stamps that can be used for experiential marketing. When the stamp is placed on top of a smartphone, sensors in the stamp unlock exclusive content online or download a song, without opening or using an app. Moberg said the Start-up Academy provided invaluable advice that "opened a new line of business for us that probably wouldn't have been there had we not participated in the experience." 

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.