Life is never dull at MSL

Another senior departure and a wholesale restructure at its holding company is just business as usual at Publicis' PR agency.

Another week brings another bunch of changes over at Publicis Groupe’s PR arm MSLGroup.

Chief client officer Renee Wilson is leaving after 12 years to go and head up the PR Council once incumbent Kathy Cripps leaves in mid-January. She follows other recent departures from the firm including chief communications officer Trudi Harris and global corporate and brand citizenship practice lead Scott Beaudoin.

Guillaume Herbette, formerly global vice chair of operations at FleishmanHillard, took over the dual role of CEO of MSLGroup and EVP at Publicis Worldwide in August, succeeding Olivier Fleurot as leader of the PR agency.

Herbette reports to Arthur Sadoun, who took on direct supervision of MSL as part of his responsibilities early this summer. Olivier Fleurot, former MSLGroup CEO, stepped into an SVP role at the holding company at that time.

In early September, MSL named Edelman New York corporate and public affairs leader Ron Guirguis as CEO of its US operations, reporting to Herbette. Paul Newman, former president of North America at the firm, left the agency at the beginning of August after less than 18 months in post.

Global social media and digital lead Stephanie Agresta and Matt Dickman, SVP and global digital and social strategy director, also left MSLGroup this year.

In addition to the personnel upheaval, the firm finally moved to settle a longstanding gender discrimination lawsuit against the company for nearly $2.9 million. The settlement resolved the claims of pay and pregnancy discrimination of more than 100 female employees.

On the plus side, the agency won big this year with its contribution to Procter & Gamble’s excellent #LikeAGirl campaign for feminine care brand Always, although its P&G business is up for pitch at the moment.

Another large MSL client, General Motors, is embarking on a yearlong review of its PR business, which is a potential opportunity for the firm, but also a risk, especially as GM is bringing in non-incumbents to the RFP party.

Then, on Wednesday after the New York Stock Exchange had closed for business, parent company Publicis Groupe announced it was restructuring into four "solutions hubs," with each client led by a chief client officer, effective at the start of 2016.

The four hubs are Publicis Communications, Publicis Media, Publicis Sapient, and Publicis Healthcare. MSL will be part of Publicis Communications, which will be led by Sadoun. The unit will also contain Nurun, Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, BBH, and Marcel.

Client teams will now be overseen by chief client officers, who will be responsible for the entire range of skills, no matter the discipline or country. It’s not dissimilar to the Team Ford/Team Bank of America/Team Dell approach favored by WPP, or the Nissan United team Omnicom put together.

The CCOs may end up being hated figures, but they will have to be obeyed as they will likely control allocation of business, bonuses, and stock options.

Back office functions such as tools, platforms, and other services will be shared within each hub. Outside the top 20 global markets, which comprise 90% of Publicis Groupe’s revenues, all businesses will be combined under one multidisciplinary operation. That could open up the possibility of more client conflicts, loss of business, and talent leaving.

Cynics suggest the changes amount to little more than a reshuffling of deckchairs on the Titanic. That characterization of Publicis’ current state may be a little harsh, but group CEO Maurice Lévy himself admitted in the group’s latest quarterly financial release that "September showed zero growth due to numerous campaigns being postponed" and "the level of cuts is surprisingly high and coming from many different advertisers, from packaged goods, automotive, and pharma."

Others say the group is only now following competitors such as WPP and Omnicom in structuring its offerings more clearly around the needs of the modern client, clients who apparently received a note from Lévy about the changes a couple of hours before the announcement was unveiled to the wider public.

From the PR client point of view, they concur that integration is a good aspiration and combining services makes sense, even more so in smaller markets. Clients will hope that sharing back-office functions such as billing will not result in an increase in different offices squabbling about who did the work and who should get the revenue – they hate that.

In both cases, they just want the best minds working on their business, wherever they are and whatever discipline they sit under.

From a staffing point of view, there will be those sitting in the PR function that is now closely aligned to advertising thinking "I didn’t join MSL to be part of an advertising company." They are also dealing with the pay freeze apparently imposed by Lévy this year across the group.

One would imagine most of the chief client officers will come from advertising backgrounds, and PR staff will also find themselves sitting much closer to their ad colleagues physically as well as work-wise, as agencies are consolidated together within the same Publicis buildings.

Wednesday’s news fueled speculation that Sadoun’s further elevation was an indication he is in pole position to take over from Maurice Lévy if the charismatic Frenchman goes through with his planned retirement in 2017.

Another potential candidate to replace Lévy promoted in the restructure is Starcom MediaVest global CEO Laura Desmond, who takes on the newly created role of group chief revenue officer, overseeing all the chief client officers and also looking after new business.

However, it has long been assumed Lévy’s successor will be French, which if it is true leaves Sadoun still looking the most likely heir apparent, although while he does now oversee PR it is understood he is still learning the particular intricacies of the profession.

Publicis has acquired a huge amount of agencies in the past few years, the most notable of which was February’s $3.7 billion purchase of digital and data firm Sapient Nitro. It will be interesting to see if the new CEO can insist on a clean book before he or she takes over in terms impairment, restructuring charges, and writing down the value of those businesses.

Back in Publicis’ PR operation, Guirguis is apparently making a good impression with MSLGroup’s clients, using a straightforward, thoughtful, and transparent approach they find refreshing.

He has a crucial few months ahead defending key pieces of business at P&G and GM and solidifying his senior team, while at the same time ensuring Publicis’ PR function gets a fair shake within a new group structure that has all the hallmarks of shifting the balance of power toward advertising.

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