MSLGroup: How Much Disruption Is Too Much?
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MSLGroup: How Much Disruption Is Too Much?

After a summer that brought yet more change at MSLGroup's senior ranks, leadership hopes that closer integration with its sibling ad shops will outweigh the turbulence so far.

Arun Sudhaman

MSLGroup: How Much Disruption Is Too Much?

Even by the relatively lofty standards it has has set for rapid change, MSLGroup somehow found it possible to reach new heights of turbulence during the summer that just passed.
This is, after all, an agency that has added no fewer than 12 acquisitions into its business within the past five years, while cycling through numerous related agency integrations and leadership changes in the US, and various European and Asian markets.
At the very least, though, all of that change looked like it was part of a plan, thanks to the settled presence of global CEO Olivier Fleurot at the helm of the operation. All that changed in the last week of June, though, when Fleurot found out that he was being moved into a new role at parent Publicis Groupe.
Instead, Publicis Groupe’s flagship PR network was to be run by rising star Artur Sadoun, who also heads the group’s Publicis Worldwide advertising agency. As the most likely successor of Maurice Levy, Sadoun’s empire has grown in recent months; MSLGroup was the latest asset to fall under his remit.
Within a few weeks though, it emerged that Sadoun had hired FleishmanHillard’s Guillaume Herbette as MSLGroup CEO. As if three global CEOs in two months was not enough, the agency’s critical US operation achieved a similar level of flux. US chief Paul Newman left at the start of July, with Edelman’s Ron Guirguis taking the reins from interim CEO Peter Miller in September.
Change, of course, is not always a bad thing, particularly if it leads to renewal — something that MSL could dearly do with in the US. But several members of the firm’s senior leadership admit to a measure of surprise over the summer’s events. At a certain point, disruption stops being fashionable and becomes, in the words of one executive, "unsettling."
Much of that is down to the future course that Sadoun chooses to chart. He has publicly maintained that Publicis and MSLGroup will remain separate brands but, by the same token, insists that the gap between "influence, brand and commerce" is disappearing. Herbette, for his part, maintains that he only came aboard once he was reassured that the two brands will remain distinct.
Industry trends indicate that Sadoun's vision is not wrong — the idea of preserving marketing and communications silos grows more archaic by the day. Even if Publicis and MSLGroup do not merge, they will certainly be expected to integrate in a more sustained manner. A recent Publicis Groupe meeting in San Francisco, which brought together 300 of its top people under the banner ‘The Power of One’, brought this message home in no uncertain terms.
Yet even if the theory holds, integration has proved more than a little elusive for an agency world that has grown up around separate channels and client fiefdoms. A dose of cynicism, accordingly, might appear well-founded. Herbette responds by contrasting his lengthy career at Fleishman with the opportunity he believes MSLGroup has within its grasp now.
"When you think about where I’m coming from — I know exactly the way it works in other networks — we would partner," he says. "Now we are trying to finalise the solution where there would not be a P&L."
"It’s a fantastic opportunity, because as you know we are the only PR network inside this group, which is very different from WPP or Omnicom or IPG,” he continues. "If you think about the history, there’s always between a wall between advertising and PR."
Breaking down that wall, says Herbette, has begun by “harmonising back office functions”. “But not the front office,” he adds. "We are not going to merge. The value of the brands is way too high."
“Collaborate or die,” adds one of MSLGroup’s senior execs. "Integration means making love not war."
US malaise
The questions over MSLGroup’s long-term future, however, should not distract from the agency’s day-to-day concerns. Much of the network’s growth in recent years has been powered by its specific individual components — China’s Genedigi, for example, or financial powerhouse Kekst. Organic growth has proved a little more difficult, particularly in the US, where MSLGroup has spluttered through a gender bias lawsuit and failed to record significant growth for several years now, while also shuffling through four CEOs in four years.
"If we are not good in the US, we can’t be good anywhere,” admits one of the firm’s top executives. In theory, this should not be particularly difficult. The agency formerly known as Manning Selvage & Lee has a proud North American heritage. In a market where the talent pool is both broad and deep, finding the right people to revitalise its US operation should not be as taxing as it appears to have proved.
It is easier to conclude that MSLGroup’s stagnant US presence is less to do with the market and more to do with the firm’s culture, or to put it into agency parlance, less macro and more micro, despite the enduring success of the firm’s Always #LikeAGirl campaign with sibling Leo Burnett.
"All eyes are on the US," admits another MSLGroup executive. "That won’t be a surprise to anyone. Massive improvements are needed and big jobs are open."
Levy, by all accounts is not unaware of this issue, and Sadoun will be hoping that Herbette’s long US career will help deliver more positive returns. Herbette, in turn, calls the US his “top priority”, and has placed his faith in Guirguis, an ex-Fleishman colleague who spent 13 years at the Omnicom firm before joining Edelman’s New York office in 2012.
"The reputation of MSLGroup in North America was good but it was not up to where it should have been," accepts Herbette. "So we have decided to invest in people. Ron is a very strong manager with a great understanding of the business in North America."
Guirguis is also a corporate specialist, which Herbette believes is required for MSLGroup to develop beyond its existing reputation as a consumer shop. Another ex-Edelman executive, Curt Kundred, has arrived to lead the Western region, and three more senior hires are expected before Christmas, says Herbette. "We definitely need to strengthen our tech and healthcare practice as well."
"The reputation of MSLGroup in North America was good but it was not up to where it should have been" — MSLGroup CEO Guillaume Herbette. The firm has also transferred a senior planning director from Publicis, in another nod to integration. Indeed, Herbette is clearly onto something when he points out that of Publicis Worldwide’s top 20 accounts, MSLGroup only works with eight. Rival PR networks often sniff at the way Ogilvy PR might benefit from its sibling ad agency’s client base, but — as a path to growth — it seems like an eminently sensible strategy for MSLGroup to pursue.
“Those are amazing opportunities,” says Herbette, pointing to such clients as P&G, Citi, GM, Axa, and Carrefour. "The clients want a simple solution. Integration will help us in North America and Europe."
A former MSL executive notes that one of the group’s key US challenges has been the distance, both literally and culturally, between New York and Paris. That may have been exacerbated by Fleurot’s own opinions on "US-centric attitudes". Herbette, you sense, is too pragmatic, and has spent far too long in the US, to let that continue.
"The key thing I think is happening — which is positive — is that the centre of power has shifted from Paris to New York" says the former exec.
'The Power of One'
If MSLGroup and Publicis Worldwide (along with other agencies like Leo Burnett, Nurun and Saatchi) are serious about providing clients with genuinely integrated solutions, it will be, in the words of one senior executive at the group, “painful and quite brutal."
“Maybe it started as a land grab, but it has to be done,” says the executive. "There is genuinely a massive push, but there is fallout and there will be people leaving. If you’re going to reshape something, you have to make changes."
And while the pace of change might leave some unsettled, MSLGroup would not be the first PR network to ignore the kind of internal communication advice that it routinely gives to clients. For Herbette, the upside outweighs the prospect of turbulence.
"I keep saying that to everyone every day — MSLGroup is the most exciting place to be in the industry right now,” he notes. "The role of PR is going to be even more important."
Ask any rival network about MSLGroup’s integration and they are likely to trot out that well-worn adage about PR firms being treated as subservient partners by their advertising cousins. In response, Herbette calls on the world’s biggest advertiser to make his point that times really are changing.
"At the end of the day, to me it’s all about influence,” he explains. "I was with [P&G global brand building officer] Marc Pritchard a few weeks ago — he was talking about the transfer of mass advertising to the communication of influence. The role played by PR — through integrated solutions — is going to get bigger and bigger."
Pritchard’s rhetoric about PR has been noted before, not least at our own Global Summit, but P&G’s own spending patterns have not always measured up this vision. Regardless, another MSLGroup insider is probably right when he notes that “clients don’t have time, money, energy to deal with silos."
"They want to have integrated solutions. It’s not even cutting costs. It’s much more than this. We are fostering relationships between people and brands — this is certainly why clients need us more than before."
On that score at least, few within the PR industry would disagree. Herbette’s challenge will come not just from transforming MSLGroup, but from persuading his Publicis partners and chief marketing officers in general, that integration is more than a hollow word.
He will also have to make that case internally, particularly when it comes to those firms that have not always felt like a natural fit under the MSLGroup umbrella.
“We are not going to change anything there,” says Herbette in reference to the likes of Kekst, CNC, Qorvis and JKL. “I know there have been a lot of rumours about creating another network but there is no conclusion — all options are there. Kekst is a beautiful jewel and we are going to try and develop a network with those guys."
Instead, Herbette believes he has “much bigger fish to fry”, which also includes strengthening London, and expanding MSLGroup’s presence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Southeast Asia and Australia.
In that, Herbette’s vision sounds a lot like the global blueprint for any successful modern PR network. And like all of those, he will be judged by its returns.
“I think these changes are more real than any that have happened for several years,” notes the ex-MSL executive. “But the people there have heard that it’s a new day a lot. The question will become — can you prove it in the marketplace — not just to clients, but to your people."

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