Sapient deal reshapes Maurice Lévy's legacy

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Publicis' Maurice Lévy
Publicis' Maurice Lévy

Digital initiatives move to the forefront at Publicis Groupe with its acquisition of Sapient

If you believe the gossip, WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell was on the phone to Sapient Corp.'s mandarins last weekend making a counteroffer for the digital company, which by Monday morning had accepted an astonishing $3.7 billion bid to join Publicis Groupe.

Cue a predictably amusing exchange of words between Sorrell and Publicis’ Maurice Lévy. Sorrell described Publicis’ acquisition as "the behavior of a jilted lover" — in other words, a knee-jerk response to the failure of its proposed marriage with Omnicom. He’s got a point. Though Publicis is said to have first held talks with Sapient well before the Omnicom deal was tabled in the summer of 2013, this week’s purchase certainly seems like a rather hasty second-best alternative. Lévy had to be seen to be doing something; Sapient is that something.

Lévy hit back, of course, questioning Sorrell’s authority in matters of the heart: "I don’t believe that’s his area of expertise. If it’s about hatred, it’s an area where he has a lot of talent. When it comes to love, he should leave it to the French." All good sport for us.

Whatever, the balance of power within Publicis Groupe has shifted on its axis. Digital will now take a driving seat, and that’s good if you work for one of Publicis’ other digital companies. Not so good, perhaps, if you work for its heritage brands — among them Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi and the still-troubled Publicis. WPP and Omnicom’s results show that there’s still growth to be found in creatively led businesses, which Publicis’ digital obsession seems to belie.

Meanwhile, Sapient, despite its best efforts, has failed to fulfil its creative ambitions. It can seem a rather sterile company, and 8,500 of its 13,000 employees are based in India, though not all are engineers. That makes Sapient a counter-cultural but complementary fit for Publicis’ other assets: Its strengths are in hard-core tech and smart management consultancy-style advice — an incredibly seductive combination right now, of course. (By the way, Sapient was a key architect of Marks & Spencer’s new online e-commerce platform, which launched in February, caused an 8 percent decline in online sales, and has this week been blamed for muting M&S’s growth.)

So at a stroke, the Sapient deal does fulfil Lévy’s ambitions to generate 50 percent of group revenues from digital, gives him a tangible legacy in terms of future-proofing the company and brings in interesting and progressive potential heirs apparent in Sapient’s co-chairmen, Alan Herrick and Jerry Greenberg. It also prevents Sorrell or Accenture or anyone else from buying Sapient. But I wonder how much invaluable Publicis Groupe talent it actually disenfranchises, and whether it further weakens Publicis’ creative core.

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