Marcel and AI – the future of agencies?

First up, a couple of disclaimers. I used to work at Publicis some years ago, and still have some extremely fond memories of the place and the people. And secondly, what I know about Marcel so far, the AI system Publicis has just announced it’ll be spending all its award entry and sponsorship money on for the next year, is what’s publicly available.

Still, from what I can see, the majority of the reaction to Marcel has centred on the likely impact that missing out on awards might have on the motivation of creatives across the business. If they aren’t going to be recognised by winning awards, how can they judge their success, so the argument goes. Marcel is described by Publicis as a ‘professional assistant system’, which will incorporate detailed profiles of every member of staff in order to pull together teams to address specific client needs, the idea being that staff can ‘bid’ to be involved in client briefs.

Hmm. Let’s just take another look at that, shall we? Whilst it’s heralded as a natural next step in delivering the “Power Of One” approach that has supposedly done away with individual P&Ls to facilitate cross-company working (tell that to the poor souls presenting quarterly numbers for which they are being held accountable by the way), in my opinion the real promise that Marcel makes is to remove the need for managing directors and business unit leaders altogether. Well, if you have the technology to match people to opportunities across geographies, time zones and markets, what’s the point of having managing directors to manage those people? If the promise of the work itself is strong enough, one presumes, there will be no need for traditional leadership of any kind.

It kind of fits, though, with what’s happening across the communications business as a whole. The exodus of mid-level and more experienced account handlers from the PR and medcomms business continues as people walk away from the always-on demands of agency roles to freelance. They don’t seem too bothered about any lack of personal development or growth opportunities, in fact some see not having to participate in company-led initiatives as an advantage. Loose collectives or groupings of freelancers happy to work together on projects directly with clients are springing up all over the place, as our work becomes increasingly commoditised.  It becomes about the ‘stuff’ we deliver rather than the value of the thought behind it.  To be fair though, talented creatives and planners have long been able to name their price in the freelance market, picking and choosing the work they want to do and the hours they want to work.

The days when clients relied on agencies as their institutional memories are rapidly disappearing, as the value of long-term relationships is continually degraded. In the race to cut costs, most agencies now have to repitch regularly even when the client is happy, because that’s what procurement requires. The influence of procurement on agency selection increasingly forces marketers to view all creative agencies as much the same, and the only way to differentiate between services becomes about chemistry and teams rather than the ability to do the work to a higher standard or think differently.

What Marcel offers, in my view, is the opportunity to remove even that differentiation. It promises to use predictive technology to match talent with client briefs, wherever it’s located. The problem for me is about seeing ‘talent’ (or as I like to call them, people) simply as a series of building blocks, albeit with varying characteristics, rather than in all their rich diversity. Amongst other things, this limited view provides procurement with the opportunity to more clearly specify which blocks it wants to buy, at what price. So, I foresee a future where procurement will specify the use of x hours of y shaped talent at z price (not that different from what happens now), and the beauty of individual creativity will be lost in translation. If you’re a freelancer, you’ll be forced to fit into that mould too, whether you’re under the radar or not.

And if you don’t fit those specifications, if your creativity isn’t quite the right ‘shape’, or if you need a different kind of opportunity to grow your skillset, well that’s tough because there won’t be a manager or a leader in place who gets you and is willing to fight your corner.  In the race for flexibility, we are at grave risk of losing our individuality, the ability to engage with and support real creativity that’s different and chafes at being put in boxes.  Winning awards is often the result of creating environments that nurture difference, that encourage creativity and enable people to be themselves.  You can’t wish winning teams into existence just by picking people from all over the world and shoving them together to answer a brief, they need leadership and support, and technology alone won’t deliver that.

Maybe I’m wrong, hopefully I am, but my worry is that Marcel heralds a future where the importance of the individual contributor within agencies becomes meaningless, certainly from an account handling and management perspective. And once this AI system has got enough data on board about what makes a successful campaign, how long will the individual creative be safe? Whatever happens we can’t get this particular genie back in the bottle, because where Publicis leads, others will almost certainly follow.  In ten years time, perhaps the hottest shops on the block will be agencies that offer a return to ‘old school’ working, with teams all together in one place rather than scattered to the winds.   What do you think?

Turning points

The last couple of weeks before the Christmas break are often a time of contemplation (in the midst of an insane workload centred around the need to a) work the budget that the client found behind the sofa cushions and needs to spend before year end and b) field endless new business pitches so that the client can come back in the New Year to a new agency).  My particular favourites were always the clients who, when told that a pitch on December 23rd wouldn’t be possible, requested that you came in with a sheaf of fabulous ideas on January 3rd instead. Because of course agency people don’t need time off with their families…

But I digress. The point is that for some people, the break between Christmas and New Year is time that they spend considering whether to look for a new job at the start of the year. They will have found themselves in the dog days of December, wondering whether they are really in the right place – whether it’s the role, the agency or even the office location.  They’ve hoped that December would be quiet because they’re exhausted after a busy year, but inevitably it’s been busier than ever. They’ve waited for their Christmas bonus (if their agency is offering one), they’ve finished off the project or programme that they really felt passionate about, and now it’s time to stop and think about what to do next.

If you’re one of those people, the question you need to be asking yourself is whether your feet are itchy because of the time of year, or if you’ve come to a turning point. When you’re at a turning point, there’s no going back – there’s an inevitability about how you feel and you’re in a space where whatever your employer offered, you know it’s time to go.  And, it’s important not to get confused between the usual end of year malaise and the knowledge that you and your career are better served elsewhere. How do you know whether it’s itchy feet or the real deal, then?

In my experience, if it’s itchy feet you can usually sit down, pen and paper in hand, and work out the pros and cons for change in a highly rational manner.  You can envisage staying put if certain aspects of the role change, or perhaps if you can have a bit more flexibility in your working pattern. It’s something you could talk to your employer about – which is great, so go ahead and plan that conversation.

But if you’re at a turning point, you can sit and stare at your completely reasonable arguments and just – feel – that something’s pulling you in a different direction. Perhaps you can’t even articulate it, you just know that it goes beyond a feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere. Turning points are critical moments in your career, and I’ve often found that they come at times when you could, with a little effort, make your current situation work for you, or even go back to it if your new path doesn’t work, but the opportunity that faces you is singular. It’s the Carpe Diem moment.

Mine came when I had the opportunity to go into partnership with a former colleague and set up my own business. I could perfectly well have found a role within an agency and been successful there, but the chance to be my own boss was one that I couldn’t walk away from – it was my turning point and I’ve never regretted it. We all have those moments throughout our career, where the choice you make will predict the course of our future. Be brave, choose wisely, and whatever path you take, make sure you put your back into it.  I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a successful 2017.

The power of questions

Some years ago, my business partner and I sold our agencies to one of the top three media holding companies, and we ended up taking over another business as part of our deal.  At the time we had agencies in London and New York, as well as getting to know another business, so in hindsight we weren’t able to spend as much time as we would have liked with our original agencies helping our teams to understand the real benefits of our acquisition.

I look back on that time wishing I’d asked more questions rather than make assumptions about how people felt – as one of those people whose glass is half-full rather than half-empty  I assumed everyone felt as positively as I did. Later, our acquirers sent us on a change management course, where I learned that we were a long way further round the change curve than our teams were. Having made the decision to become part of a larger group to expand our footprint and horizons for the best part of 18 months by the time we were acquired, all of our doubts and questions had been answered along the way. I hadn’t understood that everyone else also needed to go through the journey and had their own questions and doubts that couldn’t simply be answered by saying “trust me”.

Sometimes people don’t ask the questions that they really want to know the answer to, either because they’re afraid of the answer, or because they’re worried that just by asking the question they might bias the respondent against them. As leaders, we need to find ways to tease those questions out of people and to make them feel comfortable in asking uncomfortable questions.

I was fortunate to witness a masterclass in how to answer questions from the CEO of the organisation that acquired us when we got together all of our teams of people in one space for a big Q&A session. We’d set up an anonymous question box to eliminate that ‘fear of bias’ I mentioned earlier, but the questions were all still pretty tame and I worried that they didn’t accurately represent what people really wanted to know (but were afraid to ask).

As he pulled each question from the box, the CEO read it out and then said “what I think you are really asking is…” and proceeded to ask himself the most difficult, challenging, confrontational questions that people really wanted to know the answers to but had only felt comfortable alluding to in the most general of terms.  At the end of the session, he asked for more questions and all of a sudden there they were, people asking him directly what his thoughts were on the things that really mattered – because he’d given them permission to do so by asking himself the toughest questions.

I learned a lot that day about leadership, about how to encourage others but most of all about the importance of asking yourself the questions that other people are afraid to ask, all the “what if’s” and the “why can’t we?” questions that lie at the heart of most people’s uncertainties.  If you never ask yourself difficult questions you can’t understand how others might be feeling. The takeaway? If you know there’s a question on the tip of someone’s tongue, make sure you find a way to ask it. Just make sure you’re ready for what might come next…