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?

Looking the elephant in the eye

There’s an elephant in the room, so what are you going to do about it? Do you address the issue head on, or do you skirt it because you’re afraid of conflict? Do you do your best to stop people from talking about it, or do you find a way to have an open discussion? How can you find a way to agree to disagree when tempers are running high?

Don’t know what I’m talking about? I bet you do. In the space of a few short months, two popular votes that didn’t go the way that they were predicted to have had a seismic effect on relationships between friends, within families and in the workplace. I am of course talking about the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election, both of which polarised opinions, sending shockwaves through our respective nations.

The problem is, regardless of which way you voted (or indeed would have voted had you been given the opportunity), we all have to live with each other after the votes have been counted, but that’s easier said than done when people’s emotions are so actively engaged.  I think it’s fair to say that both the referendum and the election campaigns were hard-fought, highly emotionally charged and many untruths were shared online and offline.

People have developed passionately partisan views, and it has sometimes felt (certainly in the UK) that those who disagree with the outcome of the vote are being pushed to accede without protest or further debate. For me, the truth at the heart of any democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, and that must mean the freedom to express one’s opinion whilst being open to constructive challenge.

As it happens, I think that’s at the heart of great teamwork and great businesses too, because people don’t work well in teams unless they feel listened to and that their views matter.  Teams don’t work well if they’re at each others’ throats either, and as leaders we need to help our people find new ways to work together after these difficult months. I don’t think anyone’s under the illusion that all of a sudden we can wave a wand and we’ll be skipping along hand in hand as though nothing’s happened, but we do have a responsibility to our colleagues to address the elephant in the room.

The big question is how? Well, for starters it’s probably not a good idea to stifle debate or close down discussion of the topic, that way it goes underground and can become even more divisive. I’m not suggesting you hold forums to debate which way the vote(s) went and whether people agree with it or not, more that you set the tone for any discussion. Personal abuse is not acceptable in any environment, and if that’s happening then it needs to be addressed regardless of the views being expressed.

Leading by example is also critically important in these difficult times, and that means showing through our own behaviour that outdated attitudes are just that – outdated. We must actively address any instances of sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, not simply for the sake of the individuals concerned, but also because of the wider impact it has on the world around us, including our workplace.

I realise that for many this is preaching to the converted, but in these troubled times we need to speak up rather than staying silent. Listen to what people say, acknowledge their point of view, but then stand up for what’s right, because if we keep ignoring that elephant it’ll never leave.