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Fixing the plane while flying – Publicis Media’s talent chief on a year of upheaval

Public Media's global chief talent officer Severine Charbon discusses trust, turnover and why all 17,000 of Publicis Media’s employees are receiving diversity training

Publicis Media recently underwent a major global upheaval with the restructuring of the company and all its agencies. How did those changes affect workforce and morale? And what challenges did that create for you as global chief talent officer?

“When talking about the restructure, I am a fan of this metaphor: ‘We have been fixing the plane’s engine while flying’. In essence that means we needed to make sure the plane did not crash, but at the same time we had to fix the engine. We were creating a new model of business and the challenge was to set a new and exciting vision of the future. But yet we wanted take the staff with us and get them to embrace the change.

“The majority of the most senior people in Publicis Media have changed roles. Most people now have a new manager now and new key performance indicators. And we are moving into an era of collaboration without the vertical silos, and that has had a big impact on the leadership style. When you are in a silo, you can be a commander and controlling leader. But when you move into a matrix-style, cross-business structure, you have to move from being a commanding and controlling leader to being inspiring, empowering and open to collaboration. And it takes some time to change that mindset.”

One area all media agencies suffer with is a high turnover of staff. Did the turnover noticeably increase during the restructure?

“It’s funny because we were expecting a higher turnover and I had to warn my boss to expect it because it’s a part of transformation. But when we did our human resources report at the end of 2016, we very surprisingly reduced our turnover by one per cent. That is not much of course, but I was expecting it to increase by a couple of per cent. I believe that’s because there are often many people who are curious to see the changes’ outcome. Some people like to see whether it will lead to new opportunities or lead to new responsibilities for them.

“But then you have the pessimistic people who hate change and are never happy. They are the people who will always say it was better before. And the challenge was to keep the numbers of those people to a minimum and make sure they are not disruptive and poisoning the others. Our leaders did a reasonable job of controlling those people, and many of them have now left. And that’s ok; I would rather lose the people who do not believe in change or in the future and use the opportunity to bring in fresh talent with a fresh perspective.”

On the subject of the fresh new blood, how has Publicis Groupe chief executive officer Maurice Levy’s vision of ‘the power of one’ influenced the way Publicis Media sources new talent? Do young graduates need to bring a hybrid of skills to the table today?

“I very much believe in teams and in diverse teams. When you have at the table a strong creative mind, an analytical mind, a tech person and someone who is truly strategic, then this is when the magic happens. Yet while the technological and analytical minds are important, you still need people with ‘the big idea’ and who can understand consumers and how to engage with them. And this is the area when arts and science really comes well together.

“I remember when I joined a creative agency in Publicis 17 years ago, when media and creative was still together and everybody used to say that the media side of the business was so boring and that it was all about figures. In the same way the media people would call the creative side just ‘fluff’. Now years later I am seeing these people coming together.

“However, today the creatives are different type than before. It’s the new generation; they are digital natives and they know how to start from the audience. It’s no longer about pushing a big idea, but speaking to the individual. Creatives today do not to be coders necessarily, but they need to know how to use technology to power up ideas. But at the end of the day, the new generation is born like that – they are born inside digital.”

How has the rise of social networks and technology companies affected the challenge of keeping good staff? Are these digital natives easily lured away from media houses to Silicon Valley-style companies?

“I think this perception is a bit exaggerated. In reality, you have to consider that almost 90 per cent of our talent are so-called millennials – so aged between 20 and say 34. And what people in this age group look for is learning and experiences. This generation gets bored very quickly and wants to learn new things very fast. They cannot stand doing the same job for three years, so you need to rotate them quickly and give them this training, learning and experiences.

“The second important motivation for this generation is work flexibility: people want the freedom to work from home, in a different office or to go on holiday somewhere. If you ask people, this, and learning, matters more than the salary. And you do not get that when you work for a tech company: it’s far more rigid. If you work at Google or Amazon, you are hired for a specific job; you have to deliver and you have KPIs every day. You are measured and you do not have the space to explore, innovate and there is no room for ‘how about?’. Although companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google can put big packages on the table, from a talent perspective people often come back disappointed. I think we are much more agile in allowing people to innovate and move from one company to the other.”

Moving on, you recently spoke about gender equality at the Campaign360 conference. While not to undermine the battle for women’s empowerment and equality, do you think the subject has led to other areas within the diversity debate becoming sidelined, such as racism, ageism and disability?

“We recently looked at our diversity programs and we found most of the investment was going into gender, sexual orientation and race. But there are definitely inter-generational gaps. As this new generation moves up into leadership – and we are seeing this with our clients too –we are going to struggle. We have to provide training for the younger generation to rise up to leadership, but also some counter-training where the young people mentor their bosses. And we have done that in a number of markets; [the millennials] are teaching their bosses how to use Instagram and social media, etc…

“However, when it comes to gender equality, the reality is that media agencies are still too men-focused. In Publicis Media, 59 per cent of employees are women, but only 39 per cent are in leadership positions, so you have this 20 per cent gap. Steve King [Publicis Media global CEO] was very worried about this, so in 2017 we are in investing in a big plan to change the gap. We are auditing our agencies everywhere and looking at the ratios in all the markets, and we are going to set each market targets to improve them. It’s not rigid like a quota, but relevant to each market. Out of the global markets, I would actually call Asia-Pacific ‘best in class’ – it is better than either Europe or the United States.

“We are also planning to train all 17,000 of our staff in unconscious bias. The top 200 leaders globally will have face-to-face training and all the staff will do an e-learning programme, and it is going to be mandatory. The reason for this is because you need to raise awareness in the leaders, who are often in their 50s, white and male, that they have unconscious biases when it comes to recruiting. You need to give them training in how to make decisions based on neutral facts and not your own conviction.”

In Asia, especially in markets such as China and Japan, work culture geared towards long, unforgiving hours in the office is often cited as one of the biggest issues affecting regional talent. The suicide of Dentsu’s Matsuri Takahashi is just one of a number of tragedies to hit Asia in recent times. What can be done to change this culture?

“In Japan there is definitely a culture in being at work quite late. I believe it all comes down to education. The managers need to set the examples. We are telling them to leave early, to switch off their mobiles and stop checking their emails at 2am, but it’s going to take time. We’re not going to fix it overnight. But there is a real awareness that it needs to change; there is a sense of commitment to make it happen and we are doing so step-by-step.”

Dentsu’s new president Toshihiro Yamamoto recently pledged to create a more flexible working culture following Matsuri’s suicide. Do you think he actually will and do you think other agencies will follow his example?

“In all organisations, people respond to leadership and their examples. If the leaders are incentivised to change behaviour and track new behaviour mandated by the organisation, then things will change. You need to make sure the managers are accountable and are leaving on time. And you need to connect the bonuses to these managers to make sure their teams are not overworked. For things to change there must be commitment from the top. I do not know [Dentsu] Aegis very well, but I know that the Japanese are very disciplined so if the boss set a model, the others would follow. If [the president] is setting an example himself, then the next line will replicate that example and it will cascade down.”

Looking ahead, what do you think are likely to be the main discussion points this year in terms of diversity? Are we likely to see more about shared-parental leave or perhaps more about inclusion of people with disabilities?

“There is a real commitment to change from this region’s leaders. I believe we will see more work flexibility for women and men who have parental responsibilities. And I believe that flexibility will extend to disabled people. If we become more open to people working from home or working remotely then we will be able to tap into people who may be immobile.

“We need shift from counting hours to counting the output. Ultimately it’s a leadership shift; we need to train our leaders to change their mindsets from command and control to trusting people. It’s so important. All organisations, not just agencies, need this trust principle. It creates more agility, it’s more inspiring and when people are trusted they are motivated.

“At the same time there still needs to be KPIs so that trust can be delivered. It’s still a contract, but one that’s built on trust and obligations. And this could be a game changer: with trust and flexibility, you will ultimately build diversity.”

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