Publicis Media CEO Steve King explains his plan to rev up the group’s media performance | M&M Global

Publicis Media CEO Steve King explains his plan to rev up the group’s media performance

Steve King, chief executive of the company’s new division Publicis Media, has unveiled a bold restructure. He told M&M Global why the group has made a pit stop in the media race for a much-needed oil change and set of new wheels. 

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Steve King, the newly-appointed CEO of Publicis Media, has a story for those who criticise his plans to rebuild the group’s media operation.

Going back to the early days of Zenith, born from the media department at Saatchi & Saatchi in the UK, King points out that the new agency was subject to widespread disapproval and derision. And how wrong those naysayers were proved to be.

“Everyone said, ‘This is not going to succeed, you’re never going to succeed taking the media outside of the agencies’,” says King. “At the time, people like WPP and Omnicom, Sir Martin Sorrell and others said that we’d never take the media out of the agencies and we’ve got a claim to fame that we were the pioneer that started this industry.”

Yet, although King is proud of that pioneering past, he actually feels such revolutionary behaviour is a disadvantage in today’s landscape: “The people that go out first in the Wild West, they come back with the arrows in their back.”

King describes this as “last mover advantage”, when people subsequently adapt the business model and learn by the mistakes of the pioneer. “Uber wasn’t the first taxi service and Facebook wasn’t the first social media site but it’s definitely the most successful,” King adds.

New beginnings

This latest reincarnation comes after 300 Publicis leaders converged on San Francisco last September, attending various sessions on talent and leadership, and revealing a fairly consistent view that the current organisation did not best represent clients’ needs.

Building on the perspective that almost all businesses are being disrupted at all stages, a collective decision was reached to rebuild the 90 year-old Groupe with the aim of making it more accessible and easy to navigate for clients.

“For reasons best known to himself, Maurice [Levy, Publicis Groupe CEO] asked me to take over the media group which is obviously quite a big challenge,” says King, who has been running ZenithOptimedia globally for around a decade, and has worked with the company since its early days as Zenith Media Buying Services Limited.

However, he admits that other parts of the business were not as familiar to him, so he has spent the last three months travelling to see clients and key talent, as well as investigating different operations.

“In the agency which I’m sitting in today, in London or anywhere else in the world, we’ve got data scientists, we’ve got code writers, we’ve got content managers, we’ve got social listening experts, we’ve got econometricians, we’ve got human behaviourists, we’ve got psychologists,” says King. “It’s really a very much more diverse and complex business.”

Maurice Levy, CEO, Publicis Groupe
Maurice Levy, CEO, Publicis Groupe

The business of scale

King feels that two elements required when running a successful communications agency: the ability to attract incredible talents, and to scale all practices.

“I don’t know whether it sounds complicated,” he says. “It seems quite simple to me.

“I’ve applied some basic principles to this business, how can we make this simpler, how can we make it leaner, how can we make it more efficient, how can we avoid some of the duplication, how can we ensure that we get more collaboration.”

To do this, he has put together a management team with leaders from Starcom Medivest Group and ZenithOptimedia, while “retiring” the two brands.

In its place he has appointed three regional leaders looking after commercial delivery, and established a new quartet of global agency brands – Starcom, Zenith, Mediavest|Spark and a fourth challenger brand in the form of Optimedia|Blue 449 – all with common shared practices scaled globally.

“I can’t find anyone who can tell me the positioning of OMD, or PHD, or Mediacom, or Maxus, or Mindshare, or Initiative or any of the others”

The four global brands will look after all delivery to clients, product adaptation, growth and new business.

“I guess the model is a little like a car manufacturer. Ford makes everything from Mondeos to Mustangs to Aston Martins,” muses King.

“The headlights and the switches and the spark plugs are common across all their products, the chassis, the wheels, the nuts, but the cars are totally different in customer value, appeal, and that’s what we’re trying to create – common platforms and practices, but the brands will be very differentiated.

“The brands with the strongest differentiation in our sector by a country mile were ZenithOptimedia, which was known as the ROI agency, and SMG or Starcom, which is known as the human experience agency, and yet I can’t find anyone who can tell me the positioning of OMD, or PHD, or Mediacom, or Maxus, or Mindshare, or Initiative or any of the others.”

The importance of brands

Going back to the car analogy, King stresses the enormous importance to him of agency brands, comparing the situation to a consumer choosing between a Skoda or Porsche.

“They’re enormously different models but that is because they’ve got very clear brand positioning,” King says. “Not everything we’ve done has been best in class, but I do think we’ve got very clear positioning because the brand positioning is an outcome of the products and services we deliver to clients.

“If we can scale these practices effectively and if we can ensure we’ve got really distinctive, differentiated brands, the good thing is I’ve got a strong base to do it for three of the brands, and that’s something that I’m absolutely going to leverage.”

As such, King feels it is important the Publicis Media global presidents strive for brands as distinctive as Skoda, Bentley, Audi and Porsche, while keeping things “as simple as possible – clean, flat and easy to understand.”

“The more scale, providing you implement that intelligently, the more efficiency you should have as a result”

He feels the media business is about scale and intellect. “There’s going to be very few things you don’t want to scale because that’s why business is dominated by large holding companies,” he says, referring back to when Zenith was started 30 years ago.

“We were about to start our own media independent and you just wouldn’t be able to do that now. The barriers we went through are so high because of the cost of analytics and data, so what do you do? You leverage that advantage. It applies in media buying, it applies in all the different areas.

“The more scale, providing you implement that intelligently, the more efficiency you should have as a result.

The results of the restructure are yet to be seen – but many in the industry believe that this pit stop represents a ‘sound strategy, if somewhat overdue’. It would appear that Publicis is back in the media race.

Anna Dobbie


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