Does Publicis Groupe Have A Digital Talent Problem?

bob-lordPublicis Groupe is hemorrhaging senior digital talent.

With his exit for a plum job as CEO of AOL Networks (AdExchanger story), Razorfish CEO Bob Lord became the latest in a string of digital agency CEOs to leave the French holding company.

Among the others are Colin Kinsella, former CEO of Digitas North America, who recently skipped to WPP’s Mindshare; Laura Lang, the Digitas CEO who left last year for Time Inc; and Rosetta CEO Chris Kuune, who stepped out of the CEO job in May (though he remains chairman).

A little further back on the timeline there’s former Digitas CEO and VivaKi Managing Partner David Kenny, once seen as a successor to CEO Maurice Levy, and Curt Hecht, who filled Kenny’s shoes at Vivaki and later followed him to The Weather Channel.

It all begs the question: Does Publicis have a problem retaining senior management at its digital agencies?

A comparison to its largest rival, WPP Group, might be useful. The Dublin-based holding company has held on to many of the senior-most executives acquired through its key digital acquisitions, such as 24/7 Media’s Brian Lesser (Xaxis CEO) and Ari Bluman (GroupM Chief Digital Investment Officer); and AKQA’s Tom Bedecarre (WPP Ventures President, AKQA chairman) and Ajaz Ahmed (AKQA CEO).

WPP’s digital bench is deep, thanks largely to CEO Martin Sorrell’s willingness to embrace change and to aggressively compensate the best talent. And according to AdExchanger sources, some at Publicis feel Levy had not moved quickly enough on changes in technology and marketing. Among WPP’s investments in the last year are two decidedly non-agency businesses — consulting firm Acceleration and Latin American software developer Globant.

“Our business has changed dramatically in the last five years, and a lot of people aren’t prepared to accept that,” Sorrell told AdExchanger earlier this year.

Before last week, Bob Lord had steadily gained stature at Publicis in the four years since it bought his agency from Microsoft. In the last year he took additional responsibility for Digitas-LBi and Denuo, which gave him oversight of more than 10,000 staffers. He was also on the P12, the executive committee that includes Maurice Levy and 11 of the global agency CEOs who report to him.

Several P12 members are French, and therein may lie another problem for digital talent at Publicis or for that at Havas, the other gallic agency holding company of size.

“As one of the leading representatives of corporate France, it’s always going to be more likely that senior management members will themselves be French,” according to Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser. “When you look at the French holding companies you do see an orientation toward elevating French nationals for a host of reasons.”

Those reasons include language and cultural differences, as well as possible institutional resistance to U.S. incursions on French business. Recall that the French government scuttled Yahoo’s attempted acquisition of Dailymotion, a Paris-based company, earlier this year.

AdExchanger sources close to Razorfish suggest senior management, including Lord, have felt stymied in the four years since Publicis acquired the agency. With the completion of senior exec earn-outs last year, the temptation of jobs in other corners of the digital marketing sector has been enough to pull some away.

Some of this comes down to a difference in approaches, as Wieser points out. But he acknowledges that some of Publicis’ rivals have invested more in their digital talent. “WPP seemingly has put more of a focus on senior leadership – quietly building up a very deep bench,” he said.

Publicis is not the only holding company struggling to keep talent. There’s no shortage of jobs for seasoned CEOs tuned to the digital disruption, and Publicis folks have naturally answered that call. Matt Greitzer, who led Razorfish’s early trading desk effort, left in 2010 to found Accordant Media. Adam Heimlich, who led search and performance marketing efforts, departed earlier this year. AOL, where Lord has landed, is in a sense the largest and oldest of ad tech startups.

Meanwhile Publicis retains some key Razorfish talent, such as CTO Ray Velez and new CEO Pete Stein. But by and large, the Publicis digital bench is made up of long-standing executives at Starcom Mediavest Group, most notably CEO Laura Desmond — not men and women from its key digital agencies.

Perhaps also worth mentioning is Razorfish’s alignment with Adobe, as preferred agency partner. Such deals between agencies and enterprise software companies are becoming more common, since they lead to lucrative managed services fees when clients buy into the whole marketing stack, be it Adobe,, Google, or Oracle. But they’re also controversial since they call into question the ability of agencies to remain vendor neutral.

“The reason we never made those deals before was because we always had to be agnostic,” says one former Razorfish exec. “That deal reflects that agnosticism moving up to the Publicis layer.”

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  1. Ram Teodosio

    Zach, while a CEO provides direction and structure to the organization, they are just one part of the puzzle. I work with many talents across the various agencies under Publicis and I can guarantee you that there isn’t a lack of digital talent within. This is the beauty of digital. It made the organization more egalitarian. Just as the digital disruption continues to wreak havoc on the entire ad ecosystem by removing it from the hands of a few and giving it to the hand of millions, so too digital talent within the agencies no longer rest with those who are on top.

    Just like all the other agencies, we have our own share of challenges. However, we don’t see this as a disadvantage but an advantage. We, here at the operational and tactical level, see it as an opportunity to re-invent the way we do work and service our clients with a brand new start. There are very few instances in history that a generation is able to define the way they do their work. We are living in one of those instances.

    While it is sad that we’ve lost many of our visionaries. Believe me, there are many others. So, I would encourage you to consider the organization not only from the top 1% but the rest of the 99%. You will find plenty of talent all around within Publicis.

    Ram Teodosio

  2. As a former employee, I am not surprised by the news. Publicis’ actions go against their vision in that they made every technology decision based solely on cost, not long-term strategic alignment. Imagine they acquired top-notch digital agencies only to take away their greatest assets–the very technology that is the foundation of the digital business only to replace them with legacy technology that has doomed them to begin with. Their traditional advertising business has deteriorated and they did the right things by acquiring digital agencies to save their souls, but then turned around and destroyed them in the wake. They also put a tight grip on the digital agencies from the finance perspectives often crippling their agility. Imagine every capital expense has to be faxed to Paris (no kidding) before it could be considered and approved. They took so long to process them that we considered it a black hole.