For many years, the "Sage of Soho", Sir Martin Sorrell, has chanted "the future is digital, the future is global".
Few doubt he is right in terms of long-term revenue growth for the marcoms business. But, this week, it is arch rival Maurice Lévy, the Publicis boss, who is claiming to have created "the largest, most complete concentration of digital skills and competencies in the world".
The Frenchman’s justification was the mega-merger between Publicis’ two big digital networks, Digitas and LBi. It is the latest move in an enjoyably cut-throat game of chess between the two holding companies.
Publicis had already bought Razorfish for $530 million in 2009, but WPP snapped up AKQA last summer for a similar sum. After that, Sorrell took a swipe at LBi, which he said was a "roll-up" of businesses rather than one "organic" company. Lévy subsequently hoovered up LBi anyway, days later, and now we are seeing Publicis’ attempt to tidy things up: to provide a unified global digital offering for clients.
Scale is essential in a globalised marketing world, but it will be raw talent that will ultimately create the growth
Sorrell would argue that only he is so far delivering this, with OgilvyOne and Wunderman each close to billion-dollar digital businesses worldwide.
Certainly, Lévy has his challenges in this space. Quite apart from Publicis’ manifold digital agency brands, and the need to retain some of these to avoid client conflict, it has to effectively merge American (Digitas) and European (LBi) cultures.
While these big strategic moves are crucial, so too is leadership. The combined DigitasLBi will be led by Luke Taylor and he will report to Publicis’ head of digital, Bob Lord. But they also need significant grunt work at mid-management level to run best-in-class specialist functions in the interests of clients. This is why there is presently such a premium on digital business leaders who can achieve real culture change.
Scale is certainly essential in a globalised marketing world, but it will be raw talent – both management and creative – that will ultimately create the growth.
The kings of the marketing groups look on imperiously, now regularly striking half-a-billion-dollar deals, but they are only too aware that it is the rooks and knights – and the pawns on the ground – who will make the real difference to the digital endgame.
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