Publicis, Google Take Things to the Next Level

Levy and Search Giant Plan a Future Together. Sorrell: What Else Is New?

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NEW YORK ( -- The announcement was vague and heavily PR'd, but it was clear Publicis wanted to deliver this message: We're over "frenemy."

Publicis chief Maurice Levy and Google CEO Eric Schmidt last week outlined a plan to create products to make agency life more efficient. While the statement was ambiguous, it did introduce a plan to exchange talent, embedding Google engineers within media-planning and -buying groups and bringing agency executives to the Googleplex to get a crash course in internet technologies.
Publicis chief Maurice Levy
Publicis chief Maurice Levy Credit: Christophe Bertolin
And while the deal may have been instituted at the holding-company level, it will be implemented among Publicis Groupe's creative and media shops.

"We'll start with small groups in various places in global capacity to learn about workflows, processes and what are true pain points agencies are having," said Penry Price, Google's director-North America sales, who was at Publicis' Paris headquarters with Mr. Schmidt and spearheaded the agreement with North America President-Advertising and Commerce Tim Armstrong. "We want product folks and engineers to understand this, not just account folks. What products need to be built for agencies to help them scale?"

Offline exchange
The idea is that certain agency functions -- for example, online-ad trafficking -- could benefit from new technologies to make it more efficient. The talent exchange will not be limited to agencies' online functions but will include offline areas as well, such as spot media, cable TV or radio-ad buying. It also will help Google develop relationships with Publicis creative shops, such as Saatchi or Fallon.

"We're not fluent in the display world or the traditional media world that we're entering into," Mr. Price said. "When we work with these agencies across various functions at Google, we're learning a lot."

The plan to swap employees brings credence to an announcement not every ad exec took seriously (and understandably so, thanks to a Publicis press alert that Messrs. Schmidt and Levy "held informal meetings" to talk about "collaboration ... based on a shared vision of how new technologies can be used to improve advertising."). But there are Trojan-horse elements to the deal among agencies that remain skeptical of Google's long-term intentions. WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell once called Google a "frenemy" -- a short-term friend but a long-term enemy to agencies.

"Next time I meet with Eric Schmidt, we'll send out a press release," Mr. Sorrell told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, before questioning Publicis' tech savvy. "Maurice is ... acknowledging a little bit of an Achilles' heel in relation to technology."

Making friends
Mr. Sorrell's dismissal aside, the move is a strong sign Google is winning support from a previously skeptical industry, which will be vital to its ambitious plans to grow brand advertising. Messrs. Armstrong and Price said this is a validation of many efforts Google has made to get to know agencies.

According to several executives familiar with the situation, Google has had similar discussions with Omnicom Media Group and Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. One Goodby executive said the agency has talked about exchanges as well. "We nearly did one, but due to schedules of the people involved we have yet to get it going."

Mr. Levy called the move a "triple win" as opposed to a win-win, because it's good for clients, Google and Publicis. In a response to Reuters' interview with Mr. Sorrell, he said WPP may not understand the deal's importance because Mr. Sorrell is a financier, not an engineer like himself -- and, incidentally, Mr. Schmidt.

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Contributing: Laurel Wentz, Alice Z. Cuneo
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