by Herman Manson (@marklives) Publicis Africa Group, Publicis Groupe’s African agency network, has grown from 200 people in 2010 to 3000 in 2015, and the network now spans 35 countries and 51 agencies — an investment of billions of rand. It merges a selection of local agencies with Publicis Groupe’s international agency networks, including Saatchi & Saatchi, Starcom Media Vest, Leo Burnett, Publicis Worldwide, Digitas, Sapient, Zenith Optimedia, MSL and Arc.

In 2010, the network was facing decline in its sub-Saharan African business. It had only six legacy relationships with Saatchi & Saatchi affiliates on the continent (which hinged upon the work the network then did for Guinness), two legacy relationships with Leo Burnett agencies, and an equity relationship with Publicis Worldwide in Ghana.

In South Africa, it had minority equity in Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, MSL (the PR network), and a majority share in Publicis Worldwide. For the most part, the SA agencies, working in Africa’s biggest advertising market, were considered troubled and were losing business.

Publicis Africa Group logoForced a rethink

Pressure from multinationals, tied into global deals with Publicis, forced a rethink on its African businesses. Kevin Tromp was appointed as the new CEO of Publicis South Africa and dispatched to stabilise the group’s SA agencies. At this point, there wasn’t much thought given to expanding its footprint in Africa; it had to save face with clients and reinvigorate its agencies in SA.

But as the SA businesses stabilised, Tromp saw opportunities for expanding the group’s interests and revenue, both here and in the rest of Africa. Tromp believed its network brands could build scale across the wider continent and really service global clients, themselves eyeing Africa for growth.

In SA, Publicis Groupe bought back majority stakes in its agencies, allowing it to exert more direct control and to restructure the businesses. New leadership was then introduced; according to Tromp, he brought on board the best people the group could possibly attract, tasked with understanding client needs and expectations, and where individual agencies had failed these. Agencies were restructured accordingly.

A network was put in place to build a group that is competitive, and attractive to talent and adding skills. To build it up, Tromp, now CEO of Publicis Africa Group, set about finding up-and-coming agencies across multiple skill sets, which were moulded with more traditional agencies. Criteria he looked at included agencies being relatively young, forward-focused and for whom the best is yet to come. They’ve had to be digitally enabled, with the potential for leapfrogging rivals.

Early example of strategy

An early example of this strategy was the purchase of Synergize that was integrated into Saatchi & Saatchi as its new digital search marketing/digital arm. The deal was announced in December 2013 and Synergize’s 48 staff members all moved into Cape Town offices of Saatchi & Saatchi; physical integration of agencies has consistently been part of the Publicis Africa Group strategy.

Saatchi & Saatchi also did away with an independent Johannesburg and Cape Town office structure, consolidating its offering into Saatchi & Saatchi South Africa.

Saatchi & Saatchi Synergize, recently appointed global search marketing provider for P&G’s Ariel detergent brand in 25 countries, became part of a larger three-part integration with the purchase of Brandsrock and the launch of Saatchi & Saatchi BrandsRock, under the leadership of John Dixon, in 2014.

There’s also been the acquisition of Lighthouse Digital (which has become part of Publicis division, Starcom MediaVest Group) and Machine, which merged with Publicis Worldwide SA to become Publicis Machine.

Other local deals have included the creation of Prima Arc, now Arc South Africa; the purchase of Liquorice, now a DigitasLBi company; and the merger of OwenKessel and Leo Burnett to form OwenKessel Leo Burnett. Then there’s Epic Communications, which has been aligned with Publicis Groupe’s strategic communications network, MSLGROUP, to form Epic MSLGROUP. Media agency AML has been rebranded as ZenithOptimedia South Africa.

Largest African investment to date

Recently, Publicis acquired below-the-line agency The Creative Counsel — South Africa’s largest ad agency with revenue of R700m. It’s been the group’s largest African investment to date and there are plans to launch the activations business across various African markets.

Publicis Africa agenciesThe mergers and acquisitions seem to have revitalised the agencies involved. Publicis Machine has won the below-the-line (BTL) communications account for the Barclays Africa Corporate and Investment Banking business, as well as PSG. OwenKessell has won McDonald’s South Africa plus Dimension Data. Saatchi & Saatchi Brandsrock has won Momentum, Beares, Telkom (BTL and events) and TekkieTown, to name a few.

The network agencies also seem to be working well together. Publicis Machine and The Dialogue Group Botswana are working together on St. Louis Larger; AG Partners (Tanzania, Benin, Ivory Coast, Burkina, Togo), Right Here Tanzania and QG Uganda are working on Oryx Energies (to expand to Mali and Zambia in 2015); and there are network agencies working on Samsung in Kenya, Mauritius, Reunion and South Africa, and with Nestlé, P&G, Orange, Bel and Bic in multiple countries.

In terms of agency match-making, Tromp says he’s looked for leaders of like mind— often they work together or have done so in the past. Matching people and building an ecosystem of these like-minded individuals with complementary skills are what has defined most of the actual mergers.

Surprises to date include the growth of pure-play digital agency Liquorice, which is beating its growth numbers (Tromp admits he is sceptical about digital pure-plays in the broader agency landscape).

The inward success in terms of agency integration at Publicis Machine has also surprised him. It seems to be one of the smoother transformations that, according to Tromp, has generated real synergies and has since won much business.

Extending equity footprint

The group is committed to extending its equity footprint across the continent, he says. Equity deals not only put the group’s money where its mouth is, in terms of its commitment to investing in Africa, but also make sure that it has control in ensuring that quality standards are maintained, and that there are common will and objectives driving the entire group.

Publicis Africa Group has equity stakes in 31 agencies across Africa (including 11 in SA); Tromp believes it to be the largest agency-network equity footprint on the continent.

Investments span Francophone Africa through its investment in AG Partners (active in 13 countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Mali, Niger Senegal, Chad and Togo). In Nigeria, it is a partner with the Troyka Group (government regulations limit outside-agency ownership to 25%), employing over 400 people in two ad agencies plus the county’s leading digital agency, HotSauce Interactive, two media agencies and a PR agency.

In Kenya, the group has an equity stake in Access Kenya (affiliated with Leo Burnett) and is expanding into a second agency. It also owns 100% in Publicis Africa Group Ghana, an agency of around 25 people that works on top brands including Nestlé and Vodafone. Its development business, Prodigious, based in Mauritius, employs a hundred developers and support devs across the group.

“When we started out building the network, we agreed that one of the keys to building a loyal, involved and inclusive group is that we needed to be as authentic and fair as possible in the way that we construct our relationships,” says Tromp. “We decided that, unlike the other agency groups, we shouldn’t charge non-equity agencies for being a part of the network.”

This is one of the most-destructive relationship elements that is in common practice across Africa, he believes. “Only if we put business into an agency, do we share revenue. Otherwise, we share information with them, as we do with equity agencies, and they have access to the network tools that you would expect in any network agency around the world.

“This makes for partnership and participation, and attracts the best agency partners, as it is clear to the local agencies that we are not simply worrying about the network’s success, but also the success of all the participants.”

Several deals still in the making

Tromp says the group is open to further investments, both in SA and other parts of Africa. Several deals are still in the making locally.

At group level, there is a holding company managing centralised services, including HR, finance, IT and production, and its role is to support all agencies plus facilitate their working together, where required. The group is network-agnostic, so it encourages collaboration across traditional network boundaries. There is also an overall CEO (Tromp) and CFO (Shane Fenthum).

Although each network has its own culture, the group plays a role in facilitating an authentic, transparent culture, one that encourages group companies to work together, says Tromp. There is an intranet, a regular digital magazine, an annual conference and an internal awards system (the Giraffes) handed out by a creative council that also coaches on submitted work. The conference has grown from 40 people in 2010 to 200 in 2015.

Tromp says agencies will continue to evolve. If they are to retain a seat at the CEO’s table, they need to have a consultancy component as part of their offering. This will have to grow in time and within the context of the creative positioning from which agencies emanate.

New regulations championed by the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) will see a requirement introduced that all advertising agencies in SA be 51% locally owned by 2121. Tromp says Publicis Africa Group isn’t concerned, as it is in the process of bringing a number of new empowerment partners into the organisation that would meet any local-ownership targets likely to be introduced.

PUBLICIS, Paris, le 25 février 2014. © Julio Piatti
Kevin Tromp. Pic: Julio Piatti.

Tromp’s agency background

Tromp, who has been the driving force behind Publicis’ African ambitions, comes from a strong agency background. He was global account head for Leo Burnett South Africa between 1987 and 1995, where he worked on the SAA business. He moved to the US to become international account director at Young & Rubicam Advertising, in Chicago, at United Airline’s Worldwide Headquarters. He then spent two years as client service director/GM at FCB Direct in Chicago before joining Leo Burnett/Arc Malaysia as deputy MD in Kuala Lumpur. Here he managed the Malaysia Airlines account group globally.

Tromp briefly left advertising to join YTL Corporation, a Chinese-Malaysian-owned conglomerate, as executive VP brand development, before moving back to the US as international VP marketing at The Brassfield Group/GNLD International.

There are many challenges when moving at the pace and scale that Publicis Groupe is moving in Africa, and it could not have been done without the Paris-based leadership group’s trust in the multinational team tasked with making the acquisitions, says Tromp. “While the financial metrics may make obvious sense, it’s critical that the cultural compatibility and strategic  business fit are aligned, and this is difficult to assess at a distance.”

Selling his dream for an African network was tough initially — especially as it came off the base of a small grouping of dysfunctional local agencies. Agency integrations also have their challenges; missteps do happen and need to be managed, at both structural and human levels.

Best agencies already bought

Tromp sees the merger and acquisitions market leveling off: he’s of the opinion that the best agencies have been bought or been invested in by the international giants (he does admit there are one or two notable exceptions). Deals will become less expensive as a result.

He also doesn’t believe a management exodus is likely after earn-out periods expire. At group level, 70% of these executives stay with Publicis globally. That said, succession planning is in place and ongoing at all the group’s businesses.

“Some of the countries in Africa are new to  the disciplines that we’re introducing, but we believe that this is the time to be making the investments in building capabilities and orientation… deep digital capabilities, an integrated data and analytics infrastructure, and a significant brand experience and activation capability  will provide massive power in the future,” observes Tromp.

The group is working to bring shopper marketing skills to bear in a developing ecosystem. This includes deep investment in engaging with consumers, understanding their motivations and habits, and building engagement and loyalty mechanisms that will be the successful platforms of tomorrow. It’s early days, but he believes the group is taking sound strategic actions, that will bode well for success in the future.

According to Tromp, Publicis Africa Group has taken the correct steps to “gathering together a large group of talented, like-minded people [who] are providing a coordinated approach to the building of brands across the continent”.

“Our mission is to be the most client-valued communication network on the continent,” he says. “And we will do all that we can to achieve that standing.”


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Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of He was the inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011 and has, over his 20-year-plus career, contributed to numerous journals and websites in South Africa and abroad, including AdVantage magazine, Men’s Health, Computer World and African Communications.


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