- In June 2017, Publicis Groupe announced that it would skip all awards and industry events for a year to develop an AI-driven project management platform called Marcel.
- It was supposed to be Arthur Sadoun’s first big move as CEO of the world’s third-largest holding company and create a huge splash in the industry.
- But Marcel became one of the industry’s most mysterious and ridiculed projects in recent years and was hampered by internal skepticism, tension, and confusion.
- When Publicis and Microsoft finally debuted a Marcel prototype in May 2018, it fell short of its promise.
- Since then, holding company leadership stopped talking about the platform as conversation shifted to the $4.4 billion acquisition of data firm Epsilon. Now, Publicis estimates that Marcel will be available to all employees in mid-2020.
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“Silly.” “Fatuous.” “Unrealistic.”
These are some of the words a former top Publicis Groupe executive used to describe Marcel, the AI-powered HR and project management app that has been one of the industry’s most mysterious and ridiculed projects in recent years. According to Publicis, Marcel would change the ad industry by connecting the holding company’s estimated 84,000 employees with one command spoken into a voice interface.
Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun announced Marcel in summer 2017 in a manner designed to make the biggest possible splash: Cancelling an entire year of the thing many agency creative professionals value most, awards shows.
He later told Business Insider he had to fight internal rebellion over his betting the future of the $11 billion ad network on a platform that would manage all things Publicis, from employee timesheets and pitch decks to closely guarded client sales data.
The platform was supposed to launch in the US by the end of 2019. But Publicis executives have mostly stopped talking about Marcel to focus on even bigger and more expensive projects, like the $4.4 billion acquisition of data collection company Epsilon. Now, after two and a half years of development, Publicis says the platform will go live around the world in summer 2020.
Six people with deep knowledge of the project said Marcel’s journey from concept to real-world product has involved internal agency politics, executive-level turnovers, and a battle between tech giants Google and Microsoft to help develop Marcel.
One person who worked on Marcel estimated it cost $30 million to $40 million and that Microsoft made millions more to develop it. Publicis wouldn’t comment on what Marcel cost, though chairman Maurice Levy said in 2018 that the project’s cost had already exceeded what Publicis spent in a given year in Cannes, undercutting a widespread assumption that the purpose of the so-called “awards show ban” was to save money.
These sources said while the platform may be a necessary step forward for Publicis, it will fall short of the revolutionary product that the company hoped it would be.
This is the story of the long, bumpy road between vision and reality — and it’s a prominent example of how the ad industry has struggled to adapt to the digital revolution.
Publicis Groupe’s new CEO needed to shake things up
In 2017, the stagnant ad agency model desperately needed a shake-up. Like rival WPP, Publicis Groupe’s revenues and stock price have dropped as Google and Facebook increase their dominance of the ad business and clients cut spending.
Sadoun, a former strategist who had previously overseen Publicis Groupe’s creative agency network, succeeded longtime CEO Maurice Levy on May 31, 2017. In his introductory company-wide video, Sadoun laid out his goal to transform Publicis “from a holding company to a platform.”
The industry found out what he meant two months later — on the first day of advertising’s biggest festival, the Cannes Lions, he announced Publicis would skip all awards and trade shows for a year to devote all its resources to developing Marcel, a project named in honor of company founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet.
Several sources said this news came as a complete surprise to most employees, including the chief creative officers and regional leaders whose teams would be most affected. The resulting confusion and frustration led some Leo Burnett staffers to mount a futile protest by placing a “Marcel” sign over their founder’s name at the front entrance to agency headquarters in Chicago. As a result, Sadoun spent the next 12 months selling the concept to skeptical employees.
“[Marcel] was the biggest, most interesting project in the industry,” Marcel president Dawn Winchester told Business Insider. She said the launch was timed to coincide with Sadoun’s promotion and forward his vision of using technology to sync up employees across nearly 1,400 agencies in 72 countries.
But sources who spoke to Business Insider said the project was announced with little planning or concepting. One said work on Marcel at the time began and ended with a preview video presented to leadership the week before Cannes, and that the company’s PR strategy amounted to a media FAQ sheet.
At various points in its development, industry observers and insiders have described Marcel as a “disappointment,” a “talking robot,” and an “80,000-person circle jerk.” Publicis even made light of these barbs in its 2018 all-staff holiday video where a voice attributed to Marcel asked, “Why create me if no one wants me?”
Tensions developed between Publicis leadership and the team building Marcel
A few weeks after the awards announcement, Publicis-owned design firm Sapient began pulling employees from client assignments to begin work on the project. A lot of work lay ahead. One Sapient source recalled a brainstorming session involving 53 people in one large conference room who went through 3,800 Post-It notes over two days while designing the app’s most rudimentary functions.
But tensions soon emerged that threatened to derail the project. One former employee said Marcel was low priority for Sapient leadership because it closely resembled the sort of internal IT platforms they regularly designed for clients. The source said a two-day workshop where Publicis employees gathered to identify problems they hoped Marcel could address was very similar to the ones Sapient organizes for clients.
“We were eating our own dog food,” the source said.
Several people assigned to the project said cultural tensions emerged between the designers on the tech side and the executives and creatives on the agency side who were working on Marcel. Two people said this was because Publicis treated Marcel like another marketing campaign, placing traditional agency leaders in top roles and focusing on promotion over product.
Multiple people who worked on Marcel also said none of the executives leading the project had worked on software products in the past. Winchester disagreed with that characterization.
The pitch pitted two of tech’s biggest names against one another
Publicis’ choice of a tech vendor also was controversial. Publicis needed outside vendors to complete Marcel, and leadership soon began meeting with companies to build on its framework. Emmanuel Andre, Publicis Groupe’s chief talent officer who initially oversaw the project, told Business Insider that 27 businesses competed for the contract.
The finalists were two of tech’s biggest names: Google and Microsoft.
Four sources said the AI and IT experts overseeing the work for Sapient overwhelmingly preferred Google because it had better technology. One said that Google wanted to build Marcel with Sapient and arrange for shared rights to the critical client and employee data that the platform would house.
Microsoft, meanwhile, wanted to develop a software product on the back of Marcel, that person said. Another described the company’s proposal as an extension of its own MS Office suite that included no details regarding the AI that was supposed to drive the platform.
But despite internal preference for Google, Publicis awarded the business to Microsoft. According to the people who helped develop Marcel, this decision showed that Publicis leadership was more concerned with maintaining its relationship with Microsoft than building a quality product and completing it on time.
One source attributed the decision to go with Microsoft to convenience, given that a majority of the network’s agencies already used Office software.
Winchester said several factors contributed to the win, including the “maturity of the Outlook product,” Microsoft’s AI capabilities, and the fact that more than 50% of Publicis employees participating in Marcel’s UK-based soft rollout connect to the platform through LinkedIn, which is also owned by Microsoft.
Three people told Business Insider that Arthur Sadoun finalized the deal over a December breakfast meeting with CEO Satya Nadella before the partnership was announced in January 2018. Sadoun and Nadella would later present their beta version of Marcel at VivaTech, the Paris-based, Publicis-founded tech conference.
A PR firm representing Microsoft declined to comment for this story. Microsoft’s PR didn’t comment. Google representatives did not respond to several requests for comment.
Marcel teams faced confusion over ownership
The team responsible for getting Marcel ready for its global debut in May 2018 faced confusion over who was responsible for what.
According to a senior-level source, Sapient was to do most of the technical work while Microsoft handled the plumbing.
But as Publicis leadership assigned more of Marcel’s information technology architecture to Microsoft, this person said, Sapient employees began to ask what they were doing “beyond wire frame, graphic design, style guides, etc.”
A former executive said Microsoft consistently failed to deliver on promises and that the team had to slash the number of features in the beta version of Marcel that it would present at the conference.
Another challenge concerned a database that, by Winchester’s estimates, includes more than 5 billion individual files. Consolidating all this information so every employee could access it is a gargantuan task, in part because most of Publicis’ 1,400-plus agencies use different storage systems, said one person involved in the early stages of Marcel.
As a result, when Marcel was debuted at VivaTech in May 2018, it couldn’t do many of things it was supposed to.
The world gets a first glimpse at the new tool that will “break the industry”
Sapient and Microsoft managed to get a demo done in time for day one of VivaTech on May 24, 2018.
That morning, Sadoun went on stage to run a 75-second video titled “Marcel: The Vision” that was heavy on sizzle and light on the specific ways it would unite all Publicis employees in what the video called “a revolutionary act.”
“We believe it’s time to break the industry … to reinvent it,” Sadoun told attendees. On the same day, he presented the full video, including testimonials from Publicis client Walmart, to journalists in Q&A sessions.
Sadoun acknowledged that the project would continue to be challenging, with only 100 employees using what was at the time a completely voluntary service. But he said every Publicis employee would soon have the entire company in the palm of his or her hand.
But after VivaTech, Publicis executives stopped talking about Marcel. Less than a year later, Epsilon became the focus of the organization as Sadoun aggressively started to sell his updated vision: A combination of data from millions of consumers to drive better creative work and media buys and the ability to create client-specific teams by picking talent from different agencies around the world.
Asked why the company has been quiet on Marcel, Winchester told Business Insider leadership chose to focus on developing the platform instead of promoting it and said Publicis would work to get it adopted in the US in 2020.
Publicis said Marcel would still play a key role
Today, Publicis’ top priority is integrating Epsilon and turning around a poor financial performance. But leaders said Marcel would play a key role in shaping the Publicis of the future.
In June, Publicis publicly launched the service in the United Kingdom, revealing some key changes such as a shift away from a voice-only interface. The company has also expanded its Marcel team in the United States, tasking Sapient VP Cliff Anderson with making Marcel live.
Winchester told Business Insider her team has made considerable progress over the past two and half years and learned key lessons along the way.
For example, employee feedback led them to drop the voice interface on the desktop version of the app. Winchester also said a job-listing aggregator was one of the most popular features among the 52% of UK-based Publicis employees now voluntarily using Marcel.
Andre said that Marcel is now a real-world product, not a dream — at least in its limited capacity — while emphasizing it would continue to evolve.
“There’s never going to be a day to say, ‘That’s done, now let’s do something else,'” Andre said.
The former executives who spoke to Business Insider offered a more critical assessment.
One source said Marcel was necessary but that the splashy way Publicis announced it fed skepticism among observers and employees and that the company should have done more to bridge the cultural gap between its tech and creative employees.
Another person said Marcel would represent progress in tying together systems like consistent time tracking. But he expressed doubts that Marcel would fulfill its initial promise to instantly connect employees around the world on projects or share information — work that previously would have taken hours, days, or even weeks.
A third former executive recalled an occasion where Sadoun himself tried to use the app’s voice interface and grew frustrated when it didn’t work properly, stating that these sorts of kinks should have been worked out before Publicis announced the project. The ex-exec predicted that Marcel would ultimately fade away — especially since Publicis has more immediately pressing concerns like ensuring returns on the multi-billion-dollar Epsilon investment.
“Something about being creative makes you think you can do anything, because you’re so used to selling the idea of being able to do anything that you start to believe it,” the former exec said.
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SEE ALSO: Read the internal memo where the Publicis Groupe CEO encourages staff after a disastrous 3rd quarter
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