Arthur Sadoun, CEO of advertising agency Publicis Groupe, firmly believes an idea has the power to change a company, if they’re anchored in culture, and reveal insights about the products and services they’re espousing. (A favorite of his, as an example, remains the Tide Super Bowl spot from 2018.)
But transformative ideas need a boost: trust in the work that led to them, plus the willingness and ability to put “bold bets” into action, he says.
“You need to have the power to say yes, and you need to take it,” he says. “This is how you get great work. This is how you get innovation. This is how you break the boundaries.”
You can hear more from Sadoun as he spoke with John Battelle on the Signal Stage in July by watching the video below or reading our lightly edited transcript.
Now from France, and worldwide, I should add, we have our third global CEO Conversation. This with Arthur Sadoun, the CEO of Publicis Groupe please join me in welcoming him to the Signal Stage. Welcome.
Pleasure. It’s a pleasure.
You’re very formal guy You’re hard to talk to.
I am the smallest global CEO, you’re gonna get today you know that.
Yes. Okay. You’ve had a good year, you’ve had a lot of milestones. Yeah, personal and professional. But I want to start with a professional. You have a storied agency holding company. But, you know, you’re widely credited with transforming it. Can you tell us what the problems were that you saw and what the transformation was?
Well, I took my job in 2017. Actually, at the time, we saw three big challenges that we try to translate into strategic bets. The first at the time, when I come back in 2017, we saw that personalization was coming. You’ll remember at that time, everyone was saying, Facebook, Google is going to eat you for lunch. So the first thing we did, a strategic bet, is to invest massively in data and technology. I guess we’ll come back on that later. But that was a big one. The second one is, and I guess many of you are working with many of us, is that we were in an industry where they were too much silos, too much solos, and actually too much bozos.
This is a mantra. And we say, look, it’s time to get that out. By the way, I don’t know if Mark is around, but Mark came to one of our conference, and he said something that was striking for us, he said, ‘You need to make your own complexities visible to us.’ So we decided to erase all the P&L silos, which means that a lot of bozos left, because they like to manage by P&L, and make sure that we can truly deliver what we call the power of one.
The last thing we did, and we should never forget, is that we are in a people business. We knew the employee experience will change, and we needed to bring a new vision for our 100,000 people at the time it was 70,000, and so we create this AI platform, Marcel, and maybe we’ll talk about that later.
But what we took out of that, and I assume it’s something that you have experienced also, is that change is very hard. If you come back to 2019, for example, two years after we were there, our stock was in the toilet. The press was very hard with us. The gross was not there. And it took us like four or five years to get where we are today, we are leading the pack. We are number one in almost everything, organic growth in new business in energy. Our market cap is the first one. And maybe the only message I’ve got for you guys and some in the room, our partners is that it has been extremely hard. We have suffered a lot. We had a big difficulties during that time before getting to where we are today. But what was fantastic, is during that time, we never lost the trust of our clients. Starting with P&G. Because we were transforming together, we were pushing the bar together and Mark has been an incredible partner.
Mark is right here.
You refer to this just now, but I kind of want to ask you directly about this. I’ve been involved in this industry for 35 years in one way or another, mostly visiting your offices and trying to get people who work for you to give me money.
Yeah. We have no money.
Yeah. I’ve just never heard that before. But throughout those three decades of being on the media side of things, and by that I mean making media as opposed to, you know, buying media. The consistent narrative is the agency is dead. The agency model is over. It’s either going to be absorbed into the Accentures of the world, or it will be brought in house and there’s no need for you guys anymore. Then I did a bit of research preparing for this. And then I asked you backstage to make sure that my research was correct. You have grown by from 70,000 to 100,000 employees in the last five years. So if you’re dead, you’re doing a good job and not looking like you’re dead.
So how do we square the perception which still exists today that the agencies you know, are over with the realities that you’re growing and you’re having one of the best years you’ve ever had?
I think the first reality is that creativity has never been so important. Creativity is at the heart of our business model, we have changed a lot, and we’ll come back to that. Even if I take it on a personal level, I came to this industry 20 years ago for a single reason is that I believe that the time and I still believe that an idea can change the future of a company. This hasn’t changed. Again, when you talk about irresistible superiority, you won’t achieve it without big ideas, that are insightful, that are in culture that are relevant to your product and services. This is really at the heart of what we’ve been doing in the past and what we are doing today. I mean, if you take a few example of what we did, I still love to look at the Tide that we did for the Super Bowl, even though it was a couple of years ago. This kind of things still is where the value is. Having said that, the big change, and maybe the reason why we’re being successful today, is that a creative idea today could be very powerful. But if it’s not powered by data, and in a way really boosted by technology, you don’t get the kind of results you want. Again, I’m not going to quote every work we’re doing with you. But if you look at what we’re doing for Pampers, through a data driven approach to make sure we have the right insights, and we connect, it is really creative at the center, powered and boosted by data and technology that makes a difference and make us go today.
That’s a good segue to the next thing I wanted to talk to you about, and you referred to it in the transformation question earlier. But you made two large acquisitions in directly in data and technology, Sapient and Epsilon. How do they play into this creative driven innovation for customers?
I wish I could tell you that we have been visionaries, but I think we have been more lucky than visionary. Because with Epsilon and Sapient, and I’m taking this in this order, although we made the Sapient acquisition before, I think we are addressing what are the two biggest shifts in marketing today. The first is a shift from cookies to identity. And this is major. I mean, I’m sure you realize that. But in a world where cookies will disappear, starting to run your marketing on identity is the only future. Why? Because this is how you’re going to get insights, real insights about real people that buy things.
Second, and I think this is key, when you look at the kind of efficiency we need to bring, this is the only way to link media investment to business outcome directly. And last, this is the only way to lead the revolution. We’re all in, which is connected TV on one side and return media on the other. I can go on and on. But these are topics that our marketer we have to address. And the only way to do it is identity. And this is a place where we are leading.
You take the US today, we have 250 million profile with around 7000 attributes, we see 65% of what people buy, and you are what you buy, and we refresh that every five second. This makes a huge difference. And this is also a big competitive advantage. The second thing that leads when you have the identity, then you can start thinking on how much you want to put on paid media and how much you want to put on your own media. You know what, hopefully for you guys, tomorrow you will rent less agencies and go more into your own digital ecosystem. When you look what we do for example for Oral B is a great example of that. When you look at what McDonald’s is doing. You’re gonna get Morgan on stage. This is awesome. You should ask her but what are the like the app at McDonald’s is revolutionizing owned media. So again, thanks to those two acquisition, we have been able to lead the change in what we believe are the two big shifts in the industry. It was a big bet. You talked about that. And I said that I almost got fired but I truly almost got fired. Because we spent in the last eight years, $9 billions in acquisition. $9 billions our competitors are two main competitors spend roughly the same kind of money in share buyback. Yeah, I hope there is no investor here. I can because there is no investor by the way. So we’re good.
I want to ask, I guess a personal question, but I feel like I’m emboldened to do so because you’ve made it a public thing. You were diagnosed with cancer about a year and a half ago. lot of people when something like this happens it’s a very private matter. It’s always is a very private matter. But you decided, instead of keeping it private. You turned it into a campaign, talking about it. The campaign’s called Working With Cancer.
First off, I hope you’re well.
I still I still have to drink a lot of water but I’m great.
Glad to hear that. Can you tell us about that, and how you made the decision to turn this into an opportunity for other people to learn and to engage at work?
Yes, I’ve was diagnosed with cancer in March 2022. And when I heard that I will have to go through surgeries, radiation through chemo, I decided to make it public because I thought first, it was important for my people. I spend most of my time in the US, I could not travel anymore for my clients, because I would meet a few meetings, also for my investors. It was not an easy thing to do, because I had to show my vulnerability, which I think is something important for everyone is that I think you can be a strength but you have to warn. So I sent him I sent a film, I always do film for any news. So I sent a film to my teams, that went pretty fast very viral, and I start to receive 1000s of emails. Those emails were all saying the sense. They were thanking me for doing that. They were telling me that they have heard for them from their loved one, those three very tough words, “You have cancer.”
Just after being scaled for their life, everyone was scared for their job. They were scared to lose it. They were scared to not progress anymore, or they were simply scared to be a burden for the organization. Too many of those people has decided to hide it. I mean, you can’t imagine the number of women that will take early days to have breast surgery. People that will go on radiation in the morning, and then come to the office. Honestly, even worse, people that will get kids with cancer, and will decide not to say because they don’t want to look weak. I
know that you guys at P&G are doing a lot of thing already and things that are very inspiring for us. But we decided to take a big initiative called Working With Cancer and maybe I’m going to let you discover the film, which was a case that won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Can we run that film?
[Film is running]
I have to fight for my life and be alive for my family, which means I’m going to be forced to quit. I’m going to lose the one thing I have that I’m still good at.
I’m a cancer patient with no insurance.
Did I get fired for having stage four lung cancer? Yes.
Her employer fired her after she was diagnosed with stage three cervical cancer. Your cancer played a role in you losing your job? Absolutely 100%.
At the hospital where I was getting treatment, other women who would have their chemo session and be so scared that if they did not go back to work, that they would lose their jobs.
I was scared out of my mind to tell my employers.
They think you’re weak. You’re not as productive as everyone else. Physically we’re damaged goods.
A new global initiative is working to eliminate the stigma around cancer diagnoses at work.
This pledge will guarantee job security for all Publicis Groupe employees diagnosed with cancer for one year, so they can focus on treatment, not work.
A new initiative that was launched at Davos this year called Working With Cancer.
This January in Davos, we presented the working with cancer initiative to our International Business Council.
Not all Super Bowl commercials are light hearted. Some have a more serious, powerful message.
I chose to sign the pleasure of Working with Cancer the moment I saw it, I realized how valuable this is for an organization.
We are very proud to support the Working With Cancer campaign.
We’re taking the working with cancer pledge
Bank of America is happy to join the working with cancer pledge.
I am not aware of anything like this ever coming together before.
We are proud to be a founding partner of the Working With Cancer pledge.
Help save lives, period.
It takes a legendary admin to turn a cancer diagnosis into a movement. So congratulations.
One of the core pillars of the program is employee value equation and experience and that that really just gets to the heart of it. Did you have any, you know, concerns or worries about, about going public and being vulnerable in front of all of your employees?
This is what we’re preaching. First of all, we are spending our time preaching for transparency for the companies, for the brands, for the leaders, and you will always win when you’re transparent, which is what I tried to do here, what I did here. Second, yes, I learned the lesson is that in this new world, I think that vulnerability is a force. Showing your vulnerability is a force and I feel 10 times stronger today than I was 18 months ago. I feel 10 times happier because when you have suffered as I felt you enjoy life way better. I still work like beast, but I enjoy it way more. More importantly, I think that when you’re lucky enough to come back from this I see you get stronger and showing your whatever it is always something good.
By the way, you did win the Health Grand Prix.
By the way if I thought I one day that cancer will give me a Grand Prix in Cannes. I definitely took the best out of it. I can tell you that.
Backstage he said he and Mark at Cannes were like the two grumpy old guys up in the gallery in the Muppets.
Yeah. and we were right by the way.
But it’s nice. It’s nice to win I’m sure no matter what. Speaking of AI, we have a question in the audience here. How do you see artificial intelligence and data analysis impacting how brands interact and motivate consumers and consumer behavior?
Wow. I need another 30 minutes I guess, and we have six.I’m pissed off with what is happening at the moment.
Do say more.
I mean, it looks like AI has been invented with ChatGPT. It’s ridiculous. Makes no sense. I mean, I was talking with Julie, she was on stage but she’s gone, she was agreed with me. I mean, AI has been at the core of almost everything we do for years. Let me take just a couple of examples.
Not with you guys, but with others, we refresh II in the US in terms of media, every five second, every five seconds, thanks to AI, it’s at the heart of what we do on media. Creative, which we do with you. I mean, it boosts our creative process in many areas.
Don’t get me wrong, Gen AI will get us way better. But what we’re already able to do in terms of personalization, in terms of efficiencies, in terms of making sure that this is in a safe environment it’s just awesome. And if you look at what we’re doing with our people with our AI platform, Marcel, we are already there. So don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot to do. But I think it’s a mistake to think that it is a new thing. It is something that this happened a while ago, it is a huge revolution. Honestly, if you look at what has happened in the last 20 or 30 years, between digital mobile, and now AI, AI might be the biggest because we’re going to put technology in the hands of everyone. But I don’t want anyone to sit in this room, that AI is not already at the core of many things that we do together and that you do on a day to day basis. Just that we have more opportunities coming every day. As long as seen, it’s very important to say that to marketers AI, without first party data is nothing. There is nothing you can do in your business, if you’re still on cookies, and if you’re not on third party data with AI, you won’t progress in any way. That’s something that we need to really understand, which is taking back control of customer to be able to offer them personalization in the right way, is what will make all the difference.
Good advice. I want to ask you, and then just making sure there isn’t another audience question. If there is one, just put it up so we can ask it. But I want to ask you about the theme. I’ve asked everybody. So I’ll ask you the theme of “Resetting the Bar.” What does that mean to you when you heard that? That was the theme of the conference?
I was not surprised, honestly, because, again, I talked too much about Mark but as he’s here, I think that he has been resetting the bar for us all the time. And we have tried to do the same is the reason why P&G has such a special place in my heart. Our founder was saying, If you don’t lead the change, the change will lead you.’ I think this is very true. It’s about always pushing for more innovation, disruptive ideas are looking for, and making sure that we invent the future. And that will lead the future.
Having a theme like this one is, I guess, true to your DNA, is even more important than ever. Now, when you look again, to the AI revolution, what is happening in data and technology, and in the same time, the buttons to continue to push the boundary on the creative forms, for everything that we discussed about how you’re going to be able to continue to create value at the moment, why basically raising your price, by the way, and you go for premium. This is the kind of partnership I guess we have built with you guys. And there is a lot of people in the room. It would be a decade that I work with P&G in September, exactly a decade. I have learned so much from our relationship about what is modern marketing and how to push the boundary that I think that this is really right. And hopefully, you feel the same about Publicis which is we are trying to push you and push you and push you to make sure that together we progress collectively and individually.
So what makes a great client? Or maybe the more interesting question is what makes a terrible client?
It’s a client that doesn’t know how to say yes. It’s so easy to say no. It’s way more difficult to say yes.
It’s like the resting basis is No.
You need to have the power to say yes, and you need to take it because you have to be accountable for what you do. And you have to take risk. I think you guys have been taking a lot of risk. It’s a very big company that has been innovative. You need to create the trust to say yes. I think we are in a business where the only thing you need is commitment to gain trust. But a great client, and you are one of those and look at the work we’ve been doing together, as a client that understands that he has to say yes, and needs to be bold enough to say yes. This is how you get great work. This is how you get innovation. This is how you break the boundaries.By the way, this is the reason why the reason why we like what we do is the power to create big ideas, and for this, you have to make bold bets. This is what I like my job is to say yes to Epsilon is to say yes to put the power in one place. We were talking about Cannes a minute ago. Exactly six years ago, I went to Cannes and I said we’re not going to come to Cannes next year because we’re going to be AI platform. And people said AI and creativity will never happen. And by the way not going to Cannes is crazy. I got 20 million of old media explaining that I was a fool. But I had to say yes, yes, because things need to change. So I think this is what makes a good client.
Well, thank you Arthur for saying yes to come here. I really appreciate it.