Publicis Omnicom's Data Play Might Be the Wrong Approach

It Will Surely Give Regulators Another Reason to Look at the Deal

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The timing could have been better.

The announcement that Publicis and Omnicom were merging was rushed because reporters were sniffing around the story. When Bloomberg tweeted Friday at 5 p.m., saying its merger story was coming, we pushed out our piece analyzing such a surprising deal.

So Publicis and Omnicom hastily scheduled a press conference for 8 a.m. EDT on Sunday in Paris. Why Paris and not New York? Maybe because Maurice Levy, the CEO of Publicis, was willing to give up his CEO job of the newly merged ad holding company giants after two-and-a-half years and John Wren, the head of Omnicom, wanted to show his appreciation.

At any rate, if Messrs. Levy and Wren had had more time to strategize about the reasons for the merger, I don't think they would have emphasized big data as a key driver. What they said in their press conference was that they needed to get bigger so that their media technologists could track the buying proclivities of consumers more efficiently and they could be more competitive with Google.

If they wanted to arouse the ire of legislators on both sides of the Atlantic, they couldn't have done a better job. Having twice as much data under one roof won't make the approval process any easier.

The leaker Edward Snowden shone a glaring spotlight on the evils of big data and how the U.S. government is tracking emails and phone records of citizens outside our country.

Go figure -- European nations were shocked, and the French government is not going to acquiesce to the merger without showing indignation over U.S. practices, never mind that Publicis has been doing the same thing all along.

Wouldn't it have been easier and less complicated for Mr. Levy to just admit he couldn't decide who was going to succeed him, so he decided to give the job to Mr. Wren? And of course Mr. Wren liked the idea of being in charge of a $23 billion enterprise with 130,000 employees.

At their press conference, Mr. Wren predicted dire consequences for not keeping up with the fast-changing migratory patterns of consumers.

He emphasized that there's been "a big shift in the way clients are directing money to be spent where the audiences are, our increasing ability without an invasion of their privacy to target them with the appropriate message at the appropriate time."

But, he said, "the world is changing and at such a pace that we may not be able to predict exactly where those audiences will be found, six months or two years from now. ...

"This puts us -- like every other industry, I believe -- where lines blur. Things that were very clear for a long period of time and are now subject to the blurring-line phenomenon, which means that you have to become more nimble, better armed if you want to stay at the appropriate cutting edge. ... Done properly, there are super benefits associated with that. Done improperly, it's a burden."

So Mr. Wren is talking about investing in "the proper tools to get those audiences," and that seems to be not only about more and better data to track the elusive consumer but maybe also to help clients create digital content, as Interpublic has said it's doing. Is that what he had in mind when he talked about "the blurring-line phenomenon?"

As our editor, Abbey Klaassen, told me, "This changing media world has brought a new set of competitors for ad agencies as technology and consulting companies -- players like IBM, Adobe, SalesForce.com and Oracle -- have invested strong marketing-service practices.

"Publicis and Omnicom believe merging -- creating a giant with vast scale -- is their way to compete," Abbey continued. "But will essentially doubling the size of their firms allow them to compete with more agility and speed, which are increasingly requirements of the new marketing-world order? That's the $36 billion question."

And even if their combined numbers-crunching ability allows them to keep tabs on where consumers are heading, I don't hear anything about how to motivate them to buy.

The medium is not the message -- the message is the message, and I haven't heard anything about how an artful and appealing story is an important ingredient in getting consumers to part with their money.

Dan Weiden of Weiden & Kennedy has seen it all play out before.

As he said at our small agency conference in Portland, just before the Publicis-Omnicom merger was announced: "While the giant holding companies are wobbling like drunkards, trying to stabilize margins, trying to hold onto client loyalty, the rest of you should be sharpening your knives. ... This new digital world has done nothing but create enormous confusion and uncertainty. There has never been a period of such intellectual and emotional upheaval."

"Oh really?" he continued.

"Look back to the days of the Mad Men and those so-called creative glory years. The world was in technological and cultural upheaval. It too was an inflection point, a point of no return brought on, in no small part, by the birth of television."

The point that Dan was making is that throughout the history of advertising, there's always been an inflection point. And it's pretty risky to bet the ranch on the latest one.

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