Cultural Revolution
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Cultural Revolution

The MSLGroup CEO's diverting Twitter stream is not the only thing that sets him apart from his peers.

Arun Sudhaman

It is probably wise not to read too much into a Twitter feed. The temptation towards self-promotion can sometimes make a person’s life appear like nothing more than a stream of pithy, self-deprecating asides, all delivered in no more than 140 precisely placed characters.

Olivier Fleurot’s Twitter page, however, displays no such artifice. Instead we see the MSLGroup CEO, variously, exhorting the French rugby team, musing on economic issues and - a little apocalyptically, perhaps - marking Giulia Sarkozy’s birth by welcoming the child to “an ocean of debt, a severely damaged planet, and a place with very few brave and honest politicians.”

Compared to his peers at other big PR firms, Fleurot’s compulsive tweeting marks him out as a slightly different creature. After all, how many other CEOs of top-ten agencies are this immersed in social media? It is not the only thing that sets Fleurot apart. In the US, where the industry giants generally reside, there is often a note of bemusement regarding MSLGroup’s rise up the rankings charts. As many observers asked when Publicis Groupe embarked on its ambitious plan to combine all of its PR assets, could a US firm like MS&L really submit to French control?

Fleurot enjoys that particular question. “There is this US-centric attitude,” he points out, in an interview with the Holmes Report at October’s ICCO Summit in Portugal. “This is going to hurt them, I’m sure. They are getting it, slowly but surely. They understand that there is a world outside the US.

“I don’t blame them - they were all educated and trained with that feeling that they are number one and others should listen to them. I think there is a vague feeling now, a first moment of reckoning. For the first time, the recovery is not what is should be. There’s a slight seed of doubt being planted.”

The results would also appear to vindicate the Publicis Groupe decision. Fleurot has steered MSLGroup with a fairly deft hand since he took charge two years ago, when his move into the role prompted observers to ask whether a neglected PR discipline was becoming more important to the French group, or the 59-year-old was becoming less so.

That question appears to have been answered by MSLGroup’s growth into the world’s fifth-biggest PR network, driven in large part by a hectic acquisition schedule. The former engineer appears to be enjoying his new building project, even if it has included some sensitive political challenges, not least the integration of the highly different cultures represented by MS&L and Publicis Consultants, two firms that - as Fleurot freely admits - “hated each other”.

“The natural trend for anybody is to be territorial,” says Fleurot. “This is human.”

“What I’ve changed is the mentality,” he adds. “I didn’t offer any chance. I said, look, I know you’ve been competing before - you have to change your mindset. Either you agree with what we are trying to do or not.”

"Being French is an advantage"

If that sounds like Fleurot is impervious to cultural sensitivities, then it probably shouldn’t. Almost everyone contacted by the Holmes Report for this piece pointed to a finely-tuned antenna for points of divergence, whether national or organizational. It has informed much of his work at MSLGroup, from combining firms to bringing new ones into the fold.

“I would tend to think that [being French] is an advantage,” he claims. “My goal is to have a house where people from very different cultures and geographies feel good. I don’t send expats. The American agencies are going to struggle if they don’t hire a lot more people from other countries. You’re talking about diversity guys, but wake up!”

Yet all of the cultural sensitivity in the world could not save Fleurot when confronted with one particularly intractable agency challenge: Matthew Freud’s desire to take his firm - often considered the crown jewel in Publicis’ PR assets - back into independent ownership.

“That was a complete cultural clash,” explains Fleurot. “I would never integrate a company if I think there would be a cultural clash.”

Getting firms to sign up to the grand plan is one thing; actually making them work together is another. Fleurot has found that agencies that pitch together end up closer for the experience. ”I’m not saying there are no issues. I always say let’s pitch, let’s win and I will decide how the revenue will be split, and we do it in a fair way.”

It is a strategy that, for the most part, has persuaded the majority of MSLGroup’s senior leaders to stick around. The downside of that kind of pragmatism, though, is that it can result in a tendency to defer the big decisions. Within MSLGroup, there are those who feel that an overarching vision for the business is not always easy to discern.

Surprisingly, Fleurot does not dispute this claim, pointing out that strategy is “never” understood well enough internally, particularly at large organizations.

“You never communicate enough on strategy,” he notes. “I’m not surprised. It’s my job is to make sure there are enough people who understand.”

The "second challenge"

Fleurot calls this the “second challenge”, following the cultural issues that defined the first. “We have a pretty good foundation but it’s just a foundation. It’s good to have a global footprint but now our goal is to be one of the top three most attractive networks. Which means, when clients have needs I want them to think of us as a potential partner. And I want to be attractive to talent.”

Those remain hefty hurdles for a fledgling network that, for all the strides it has evidently made, does not always capture the imagination in the manner of some of its higher-profile rivals. At a time of unprecedented convergence, Fleurot’s background should be an asset; he spent a decade overseeing the Financial Times - in particular leading the launch of its highly successful digital integration - before leading the Publicis Worldwide advertising agency.

A career in public relations was never on the cards until a 2009 meeting with Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy. “He asked me why I thought I could do it,” recalls Fleurot. “That’s Maurice. I said ‘Look, I think I can add value. I can talk to board members, open doors, I understand what clients need’.”

Levy must be rather satisfied with how the appointment has turned out. And Fleurot’s staying power at Publicis Groupe - his five-year stretch encompasses the departure of some highly-rated peers - has rekindled speculation that he is a potential contender to succeed his legendary boss.

Understandably, Fleurot is tightlipped about this: “I never discuss that. Maurice Levy has been pushing [COO]Jean-Yves Naouri quite clearly. I’ve never made career plans. What I’ve tried to do is enjoy what I’m doing and when I get bored I leave.”

Ennui is clearly not a problem Fleurot is currently facing. “It’s changing so fast, nobody can predict exactly where we can be in three years time,” he points out. That is certainly true, as much for MSLGroup’s growth as it is for its CEO’s diverting Twitter account.

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