Publicis deserves credit for looking forward, not back, on its 90th birthday

25th January 2016

We tend to think of advertising and marketing as very modern businesses – especially when we think of channels such as digital, mobile and eCRM.

But the truth is, advertising of one sort or another goes back centuries, back to the dawn of capitalism; some would argue way, way before that – the ancient Egyptians wrote commercial messages on papyrus and stick them on walls, while evidence of what we might call today ‘outdoor advertising’ has been found in the ruins of Pompeii. In Britain, the first modern capitalist economy, companies were using posters, newspaper ads and trade cards to sell their wares as early as the mid-1750s.

Some of the great names in marcomms – Ogilvy & Mather, McCann Erickson, JWT and Y&R to name but four – go back many more years than you might think. JWT and O&M have roots back in the 1860s, while McCanns and Y&R were founded in 1902 (at least the Erickson bit was) and 1923 respectively.Many will be surprised, therefore, to learn that Publicis is another of these “grand old men” – it celebrates its 90th birthday this year. It’s easy to think of Publicis Groupe, led by the indefatigable Maurice Lévy, as a product of the digital era or the holding group culture that grew up in the late 1980s, but the agency is in fact something of a pioneer.

It was set up in 1926 by Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet (1906 -1996), the man credited with bringing radio advertising to France; he was also owner of Paris radio station Cité (which helped launch the career of Edith Piaf) and was a pioneer of market research and opinion polling.

Although a leader in France, it wasn’t until after the second world war that Publicis’ international reputation bloomed. In the 1960s and 70s, Bleustein-Blanchet, aided by Lévy (who joined as IT director in 1971), the agency grew to be the world’s fourth-biggest. Soon afterwards, the agency started buying other agencies – Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, BBH, Starcom, Razorfish and Digitas LBi – to become the world’s second or third (depending on what measures you use, or who you believe) holding group.

But that’s history – what’s really interesting is what Publicis aims to do next, and where it wants to go. So it was with some pleasure that I read this week that the group was not going to celebrate its 90th birthday by looking back, or slapping itself on the back, but by looking to the future.

Lévy told the media this week that he was going to launch a fund (Publicis90) and mentorship program that is expected to raise tens of millions of dollars for 90 startups.

Publicis is setting aside €10m (about £7.8m) for Publicis90 and will invest between €10,000 and €500,000 in each of the 90 startups it selects as part of the programme.

That might not sound like a lot compared to the cash big venture capital funds splash out, or the sums Publicis and rivals like IPG, Omnicom and WPP spend on acquiring smaller agencies, but to a startup, even a few thousand quid can make an awful lot of difference.

Cannily, Publicis is also calling upon clients, partners, and media companies to match each investment — so €50,000 could easily turn into hundreds of thousands, €500,000 the single-digit millions.

To take part, startups need to submit their idea to a dedicated website. Publicis employees will then vote for the shops they think most deserving. All submissions will be presented anonymously, in part due to the fact that Publicis employees will also be encouraged to enter (again, this is rather canny, allowing young and ambitious talent within the group to be noticed – and, importantly, retained).

The startups with the most ‘likes’ will then be assessed by a regional jury of Publicis executives and partners, who will draw up a shortlist, before the final selection is made by a global jury.

In addition to funding, the 90 winning startups will receive a year of mentorship from Publicis senior management in the areas of marketing, communications, management and technology. Also taking part is Iris Capital (a VC joint partnership between Publicis Groupe and telecomms giant Orange, which will provide business advice).

Publicis is launching an internal division to support the project, led by Maxime Baffert, CEO at Publicis digital agency Proximedia Europe. The winners will be unveiled and honoured at Viva Technology Paris, a Publicis conference which will be held in the summer – so things will move pretty fast.

Speaking to Business Insider earlier this week, Lévy, said: “When we were looking to see what kind of celebration we would be doing you have all the clichés: a coffee-table book, a film, some big event with all the stories, looking back to the Groupe in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s … the celebrating part is nice but the best way to celebrate a company like ours, which has always been confronted with innovation, and reinvention, and trying to be ahead of the curve should be something for the future rather than the past.”

Other large ad groups have provided funding to startups before, of course (notably WPP), but Lévy believes this is a first. I have to say that I’m not aware of anything similar – certainly not on this scale – from anyone else before.

It’s a great idea – as I said, it encourages the client community and the group’s internal talent to get involved (ambitious Publicis employees will be chomping at the bit I suspect – whether the clients will or not is another matter), risk is spread thinly over a lot of projects rather than just one (given that 90 startups will be involved, it’s hard seeing them all failing) and Lévy gets some very positive PR.

But why would a start-up participate in Publicis90, rather than pursuing funding from a VC or PE house, or waiting until it is noticed by a bigger agency? The project will certainly offer less money (a maximum injection of €500,000 for an up-and-running startup is the figure I’ve heard, with €10,000 for smaller projects) than either of those options.

The truth is, a lot of startups aren’t interested in being bought out by larger companies. Winning a grant or funding from Publicis90 allows these entrepreneurs to proceed and grow at their own pace, and – this is important for many startups – retain their independence. It should also be said that although VC houses have most money, they are also more complex to deal with for creative types, and will almost certainly be more demanding than Publicis’ management. The idea of a ‘contest’, which one wins on merit, will also prove highly attractive to many.

Maurice Lévy and Publicis, meanwhile, get to be up close and personal with some of the best new digital agencies, talent and ideas. And then, presumably, snap them up for themselves. As I said, whether or not 90 shops or projects are funded, it’s great PR and €10m isn’t a great deal of money – or risk – for a company that has spent hundreds of millions in making even single acquisitions. And it helps cement, in clients’ and rivals’ minds, Publicis’ reputation as a leader in digital.

If this all comes off, I think we will all have to tip our hats to whoever came up with this idea. That pioneer Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, whose own advertising career began almost a century ago, would, I imagine, be raising a glass to this kind of forward thinking.