Steve King's ascension shows media reigns supreme

Publicis Media's global chief executive tells Gideon Spanier why it stands out from rivals and claims its more transparent approach is paying dividends.

When Steve King took charge of Publicis Media at the start of 2016, "I thought the chance of me succeeding in this role was very remote," he claims. A year later, with the reorganisation largely complete and a string of new-business wins under his belt, King says: "We’ve made more progress than I thought we’d probably achieve over the first three or four years."

King, sitting in Zenith’s London office, which doubles up for now as Publicis Media’s headquarters, is good at managing expectations, cracking jokes at his own expense and telling long stories. Yet as a Publicis Groupe insider who worked at Zenith from its inception in 1988, led its expansion into a hostile US market and went on to run ZenithOptimedia globally, he knows few were better-qualified to lead the newly created media division.

Still, no-one thought it would be easy for King, a Briton in a French-owned company, particularly after Publicis Groupe lost Procter & Gamble and Walmart in the "Mediapalooza" of US media reviews.

Maurice Lévy, outgoing chief executive of the parent company, asked King to disband ZenithOptimedia and Starcom Mediavest Group and turn them into four shops: Zenith, Starcom, Blue 449 and Mediavest Spark. These agencies, plus search business Performics, are now run "vertically", alongside seven specialist practices ranging from buying to analytics that operate "horizontally" – all with one P&L.

King claims the set-up is working for clients, which want a joined-up solution from the world’s second-biggest media buyer with $80bn in annual billings and 17,500 staff. He insists he hasn’t run into a lot of "politics".

He has drawn on his experience of previous shake-ups during his rise from TV buyer to global chief executive – "my little journey", as he calls it. "What I’ve learned painfully is you need to have a very clear organisation," King explains. "Everyone needs to understand that organisation, you need to make very clear decisions about your senior talent and quickly decide who they are and, as long as you have those people and then support them, generally you’ll find that they’ll deliver."

New business has begun to flow. Wins include KFC and Lowe’s in the US, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles globally and more work from Molson Coors, Visa and Mars. "If you look at the first three months of this year, we’re unquestionably the most successful [of the big media groups]," King states. Estimates by R3 Worldwide suggest Publicis and WPP are roughly level.

He believes Publicis Media’s reluctance to follow rivals into controversial areas such as arbitrage (buying digital media wholesale and reselling it for profit, often without disclosing the mark-up) is paying off as clients now demand greater transparency. "What might have been seen as a competitive disadvantage [for Publicis Media a few years ago] is absolutely a competitive advantage today," King points out.

Does Publicis Media use arbitrage? "We definitely do not have a business model which is a Xaxis type of model," King maintains, referring to WPP’s programmatic operation. But he concedes Publicis Media does buy as principal "locally" – "with full disclosure and transparency" and clients "are opted-in". (WPP has said it is transparent and clients choose to opt in.) 

"We’ve made more progress than I thought we’d probably achieve over the first three or four years"

As part of Publicis Media’s new structure, each agency has a global brand president rather than a chief executive, and observers say it looks like the subsidiary brands are being diluted. King is adamant that the "distinctive" agencies are at the forefront in a "brand-led" organisation. "Everyone knows" that "Zenith is the ROI agency" and most people know "Starcom stands for the human-experience company", he adds.

Rivals are "slightly homogenous", King thinks: "If I asked you what is the position of Mindshare or MediaCom or Aegis, no-one knows." Is that a bit rich when Mediavest Spark lacks direction and its global brand president left in February? King counters that the agency is the group’s "most successful brand" in the US and suggests it can be "a multi-local business". He bats away suggestions that Publicis Media might not need all its agencies, saying "there’s definitely room" for all of them.

King’s star continues to rise. While other senior Britons including Robert Senior have exited, King will join Publicis Groupe’s Directoire management board in June when Arthur Sadoun takes over from Lévy. It makes King number two in the group as the only division head to be on the board.

He says Sadoun, who is French and 12 years younger, was "unquestionably the best person to take over". Though he won’t say if he went for the top job himself: "Arthur and I have a common view that the more we can engender collaboration and a common purpose across our group, the better it will be for our clients and our people." 

King claims Publicis Groupe is enjoying "a resurgence" after it was re-organised into four divisions. There is an "interdependency" between media, creative, consulting and healthcare, and that "unique" combination means the group can be "more of a strategic partner" for clients by leveraging all those assets. 

"The business has grown from a scrappy media buying department that was down below the stairs with the photocopying department in most full-service agencies and has now become the vanguard of most of the advertising holding companies"

However, Lévy’s long departure period prompted speculation about a sale or a break-up. There is talk that King was contemplating a management-led buyout of Publicis Media. He has heard "this rumour" but says: "I can tell you categorically that there is not one element of truth in that. If you think how Publicis Groupe is going to position itself, it [a buyout of the media division] would be counterintuitive to everything I’ve just said [about the interdependency of the group’s four divisions]. Even if it was something I thought was a nice thing to do, it’s something I wouldn’t even countenance."

Several rivals dismiss the idea that King would have the chutzpah to lead a buyout. "He is not in the league of a Martin Sorrell or Lévy," a Publicis insider admits.

King is self-effacing. At one point, he describes himself as "this poor unsuspecting sap" when talking about being sent to launch Zenith US, which he says was a bigger challenge than setting up Publicis Media. But it makes King a "calm" leader, according to one colleague: "Nothing seems to faze him." Colin Gottlieb, EMEA chief executive of Omnicom Media Group, says: "He’s a good guy. What really sets him apart is he’s real – what you see is what you get."

Even though Publicis Media is "notionally" based in London, about half of the business is in the US, where King is spending a lot of time. 

While Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market, King has been surprised at their slow response to brand safety in the case of YouTube and viewability at Facebook: "I would say there’s a bit of disconnect in both organisations between engineering and technology and the people dealing with the [advertising] customers." 

YouTube, in particular, must win back trust, even though King agrees that only "pennies" worth of ad impressions were served next to extremist content. "For a company which is about technology, they should have instantaneous accountability and third-party verification," King continues. "Clients are not satisfied with the answers they’re getting. There’s a reason to say: ‘Look, it’s not a must-buy.’"

The scale of the YouTube boycott by brands could be a watershed for digital media. King explains: "Before, it was like an open bazaar. Clients were saying: ‘I need to spend 30% of my money in digital.’ There’s more of a question mark today: ‘Hey, what am I really getting here for my investment?’"

King must be able to afford to retire but says: "I haven’t made much money." The job is "fricking exhausting" and his wife jokes that he travels so much "because I have five children". But he adds: "I absolutely love what I do." His two eldest daughters work in digital advertising.

Born in Barnet, north London, King started at HTV in 1981 when graduate trainee schemes were just beginning in media. He thinks this is why his generation of Britons got high-level experience at a young age and went on to take so many senior positions in global media. "When we were setting up Zenith in the US, absolutely I was not the smartest media executive," he says. "I was just someone who had experience of running a media business." Even now, "I would be in the lowest quartile of media expertise in this building," King claims. Running Publicis Media involves so much more: talent, legal, capital expenditure, mergers and acquisitions and so on.

He is optimistic about the global ad market, which Zenith estimates is growing at about 4%, and the role of media agencies – even as they face challenges from consulting and IT giants and client insourcing.

King takes inspiration from how far media shops have come since the foundation of Zenith, when Saatchi & Saatchi merged the media departments of four full-service agencies. Sorrell and others said at the time that "we’re never taking media out of the agencies", King recalls, yet now the big six groups employ close to 150,000 people in media globally.

There are still problems with diversity, however. "There are a few people who don’t realise they need to change," King says, acknowledging that sexist behaviour still exists. All his senior managers are taking "unconscious bias" training and everyone in the company is being offered this too.

"The business has grown from a scrappy media buying department that was down below the stairs with the photocopying department in most full-service agencies and has now become the vanguard of most of the advertising holding companies," King says. "That entrepreneurial spirit and ability to change potentially could serve our sector well. We understand the brands, we understand consumers, we are huge users of technology." And, in a more complex world, "if we’re smart about it, I can see that clients will increase the scope of what we do," he adds. King’s rise shows media isn’t below stairs any more.

The lowdown

Age 57
Lives Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Family Married with five children and a dog
Favourite ad "Three little pigs" for The Guardian (storytelling at its best)
Favourite media Vanity Fair, BBC News channel
Interests  Cycling, skiing, sailing
One thing you don’t know about me I was going to join the merchant navy

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