Sadoun 'unboxes' Marcel, promising 'Publicis in the palm of your hand'

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Attention: Publicis Groupe is no longer a holding company. As of today, it's a "platform."

That was one of the pronouncements in Paris Thursday morning from Chairman and CEO Arthur Sadoun at the launch of Publicis Groupe's much-anticipated AI tool Marcel, unveiled in an "unboxing" to 450 senior Publicis employees, 100 clients and various media assembled in the bowels of an upscale hotel just off the Champs-Elysees.

The stakes were high for the event, which came nearly a year after Sadoun announced Marcel at last year's Cannes Lions, dramatizing the company's commitment by pledging to fund it by skipping awards programs including Cannes. Publicis kept up the hype as it prepared to reveal the results, displaying a countdown clock at the event and playing pounding music as Sadoun took the stage, tension and excitement both palpable in the room.

Marcel's development in the intervening span has been closely guarded, even within the company's higher echelons. Sadoun said 99% of employees were kept unaware of any details before Thursday. And, he acknowledged, the industry has been skeptical during the wait. "Some of the reactions have sometimes been very ugly," he said.

But an unbowed Sadoun began with a grand claim: Marcel will transform the agency holding company model, which he said has been "frozen" for the last 20 years, by changing the way that everyone at Publicis works.

The industry has been changing at a rapid rate, even just since the last Cannes ad festival, he said. "Over the last year our industry has been put under pressure like never before. Consumer behavior, media, our competitors are all changing. Unlike some of our competitors, we de don't believe incremental change is enough."

Marcel proceeded to fail on a couple of occasions during live demonstrations, prompting Sadoun to quip later that he had "almost died." But the app eventually did perform.

"Publicis in the palm of your hand"

So how does this transformation work? The idea behind Marcel, Sadoun said, is to put "Publicis in the palm of your hand" and to "break down the barriers between talent and opportunity."

It starts with a "mobile-first voice interface product": an app for Android and iOS devices that interacts with employees via voice prompts, similar to Siri or Alexa. Publicis.Sapient developed the user design and experience, while BBH Singapore developed the Marcel brand identity, which is based on two distinctive, owl-like "eyes." (BBH also created a colorful launch film for Marcel.)

Publicis and its technology partner, Microsoft, have developed several initial key features, one of which is named the "Daily Six." The idea is that employees will open up the app in the morning and be confronted with a personalized, curated serving of six different prompts. These could include "inspiration" such as a case study from another Publicis shop; an invitation to get involved with a creative project; a survey request; or simply a practical reminder to submit your timesheets. (In perhaps a telling moment about agency life, that last example got perhaps the biggest cheer of the morning on-stage.)

Another tool, "Expert Match," aims to locate talent for tasks by surfacing people in the company with experience on certain clients or sectors. An on-stage demo showed a Starcom Singapore employee, identified only as Suwan, asking Marcel for someone with experience in both retail and working with Samsung and being connected with a colleague in Atlanta within seconds.

Skype meetings can be arranged and set up within the app. But employees will be able to set their own controls on whether they're open to getting involved, so that only those who have the time will be contacted.

For creatives, the key feature is "Open Brief," which is designed to give employees all over the world the chance to pitch ideas for creative work. In the testing phase, for example, Walmart in the U.S. accepted creative work proposed by a young Publicis team at Publicis Madrid digital agency WYSIWYG.

Nick Law, the new chief creative officer at the agency holding company, said the intelligence of the Marcel platform will help curate submissions so that only the best go forward. Law also said Marcel was one of the reasons he agreed to join Publicis from Interpublic's R/GA.

Cannes partnership

In what seems like a re-affirmation of Publicis' relationship with Cannes Lions, after the company stole the show last year with its announcement, Cannes is teaming with Publicis to give Marcel users access to a digital platform that showcases over 200,000 pieces of award-winning creative work dating back to 2001. Duncan Painter, CEO of Cannes Lions owner Ascential, took to the stage to announce the partnership.

Testing will expand next month to a new group of a thousand staffers from the 100 "alpha users" that have been trying out Marcel to date. A more comprehensive rollout will begin in January, and the aim is to have 80,000 people, or 90 percent of staff, connected by 2020.

Publicis hopes that the Marcel system will help attract talent by appealing to a new generation accustomed to using apps and AI for other aspects of their lives, whether from booking a taxi or hotel to making a phone call. Alongside its more innovative features, Marcel is also designed to help employees organize their calendars, plan their days and get briefed on upcoming meetings.

"We want to make it as easy to work as it is to live today," said Dawn Winchester, executive VP and chief digital officer at Publicis North America, and a key figure in Marcel's development.

But the company is keen to emphasize that Marcel is a "work in progress."

"We are going to have some victories, some epic fails, some surprising discoveries," said Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer at Publicis Groupe.

Law said Marcel, like the Uber app, will change over time, adding some capabilities but perhaps dropping features that are included at its introduction.

"Building an app is not like launching a campaign," he said. "As people engage, it will build the platform and power the network."

Finally, Marcel won't be compulsory for Publicis employees, insisted Sadoun, who finished his presentation by claiming, "You don't have to use Marcel—but we believe that you will want to."

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