Publicis Health: Privacy regs won't hamper Marcel's utility in pharma

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The surprise announcement that the Publicis Groupe is taking a 12-month awards-show hiatus might not have garnered the media attention it did but for two reasons.

The first had to do with timing. Incoming Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun publicly called for the network's agencies to sit out all creative awards and trade shows for 12 months starting July 1, 2017. And he made that announcement during the biggest international festival of creativity and awards there is, Cannes Lions.

See also: Healthcare brands turn to emotion, to better tell their stories

Second was the stated rationale behind the pause. That is, that the money saved from the awards lull will be diverted to funding development of a tool, powered by artificial intelligence, designed to help Publicis agencies work more collaboratively.

Dubbed Marcel after the network's founder, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, it's being built from the ground up by Publicis.Sapient and is set for debut at the VivaKi conference in June of next year. MM&M asked Publicis Health CEO Nick Colucci what Marcel could mean for pharma and how the break from awards entries could affect agency morale.

MM&M: Marcel has been described as a "professional assistant." How do you see it assisting Publicis Health agencies to work in smarter fashion?

Nick Colucci: Anything that connects you in a seamless manner, which allows kind of an easy flow of information and data, and then an easy ability to access that with limited barriers of geography — or even company wide barriers — it's got to help. It's the right way to work. Clients are expecting us these days to connect across geographies and capabilities and across any kinds of borders that exist, and a technology like this should enable us to do that more easily. It will help us basically in the same way it will help any other agency.

MM&M: How do you envision applying Marcel's algorithmic abilities to helping take pharma clients to the next level?

Colucci: There's almost an infinite number of ways. I'll answer it this way. The richness of ideas, the brilliance of ideas, come from a richness of information and perspectives. Any kind of collaborative tool that can enrich that thinking will enrich the ideas we bring to clients. It's just one tool which happens to be getting a lot of press these days probably because Arthur made the announcement at Cannes.

MM&M: Any specific scenarios you'd care to share?

Colucci: Many times we're asked for certain levels of expertise, and to know we can in an instant identify — not only amongst my health group of 5,000 to 6,000 people but among the 80,000 people we have — an expertise or interest related to health and wellness and plug them into a problem...has to be effective. We have certain techniques now, but this should be able to accelerate that and make it broader and deeper, too.

We're in a world now where customers, patients, expect answers, and they expect them quickly. The days are over when we say, “I need some more time” and, “I'll get back to you on that.” It's frustrating to people. And let's not forget millennial doctors and customers — even in health — have grown up with computers and ways of searching for information that's just like everybody else, and [they] expect answers. And these kinds of techniques are things we have to get comfortable with and have to use and understand, because we've entered this era of individual empowerment.

MM&M: The comment from Leo Burnett's worldwide global CCO, Mark Tutssel, that Marcel will allow "creativity without borders" — a way to spark ideas globally — may be a good theory in consumer work. But is this a sound idea in the pharma sector, where regulations [and privacy laws] shift from country to country?

Colucci:  First of all, obviously there are different regulations and there are — probably more importantly — different cultural nuances from country to country. I don't think that public health or pharma are any more encumbered by those things than any highly regulated industry.

When you have a global assignment for a client, any kind of tool that will help you better understand those differences will help you be more effective in producing a better creative product and ideas. So I don't see [Marcel] being any less important in health than anywhere else.

Obviously confidentiality inside of or in health [entails] extra burdens, even more so than banking. Nevertheless what's being demanded these days, by consumers of all types and stakeholders is that we're informed. They are informed and they expect those that deal with them — HCPs — to be equally informed. A tool like this is just meant to inform.

Obviously, we'll adhere to all the appropriate privacy laws in our portion of this.

MM&M: Agencies today are facing a lot of competition from the big consultancies, which are known for formidable knowledge management and the ability to match people to teams and projects. Do you see Marcel as a response to them?

Colucci: The age of empowerment trend is not only empowering individuals, but also blurring lines between companies and, more importantly, industries. What were once very clear swim lanes for what was a consultancy, agency, PR, media — the new tech world in which we live has created a lot of blurring of lines in terms of where one thing starts and stops — and that's true of the consultancies and agencies. You can see how many consultancies were in the Ad Age top 10. That said, a tool like this certainly is intended to make us more desirable to our clients and [relative] to whomever we need to compete with.

Marcel is intended to do that, not just to aim straight against the consultancies, but in general to [distinguish us from] any competitor that's kind of blurring their line toward the work that we do.

MM&M: This initiative is consistent with Publicis CEO Arthur Sadoun's comment that he wants to transform Publicis into a "platform," a more agile, flat, modular, and dynamic organization that can create more value. The dominant AI platform in healthcare right now is IBM Watson. Do you see Marcel putting your network on a more level playing field with the likes of IBM?

Colucci: IBM Watson in health we see as a friend. [Weather Co. CEO] David Kenney participated at VivaKi, which is sponsored by us. He gave some talks. Let's face it, tech companies like to hang out with tech companies.

I see [Marcel] as an ability to collaborate more than anything else.

MM&M: The development of this AI platform by Publicis.Sapient is being made possible through savings related to the Publicis decision to withdraw from awards shows for a year. At a time when product design, innovation, and technology are redefining what "good" looks like in healthcare marketing, isn't this an inopportune time to take an awards hiatus?

Colucci: I don't think so. We have to make choices about where we put our priorities in terms of dollars spent. If I may be so blunt, there are a lot of ways to make sure something like this gets done and that the funding is there to do it. There could be other things Sadoun cuts that could hurt people or clients more than the decision to put a hiatus on these shows. I don't think he's trying to make any more of a big political statement other than the fact that sometimes you have to tighten the belt a bit and move the chips over to where it will do you more good. We're making some tough choices to get this thing operative, opportune or inopportune.

Tech and creativity are not a zero-sum gain. We're one of the few organizations in our sector that delivers both.

MM&M: Pharma clients I have asked have said that they understand the need to make a trade-off to fund an investment. But the attitude among the agencies is different. Some in Publicis agencies have expressed concern that this could lower the motivation for your teams, in that their work cannot be recognized. How will you ensure the creatives in your agencies remain inspired?

Colucci: [Sadoun] is very clear that we must always celebrate our brands, and that's how clients like to buy us. But client centricity is the key to our success, with no buts. Clients need to come first. And we need to deliver on their brand. That means we need to deliver our best work, and those who deliver that brilliant work, their careers will grow inside this organization because the client's business is growing. Those who are so self-centered for their own work and their own work's sake, this is not going to be the place for them.

The key to success now is to empower your people to make a difference, all the way down to the entry-level positions in the organization. [Sadoun] wants people to embrace that idea, and a platform like [Marcel] helps facilitate the attitude. We'll keep people motivated by celebrating great work, acknowledging and promoting that work lots of different ways.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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