by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Publicis Machine is set to embark on a new brand journey that sees it reorganising the way it does business, in a bid to better serve clients in a rapidly shifting social context. Through an initiative called The Machinery, the Publicis Groupe Africa agency — which operates independently yet collaboratively — is repositioning itself to focus on ingraining brands into popular culture.

Neal Farrell and Gareth McPherson
Neal Farrell and Gareth McPherson

Critical to sustained success

This is something that Gareth McPherson, group executive creative director, and Neal Farrell, managing director, see as critical to sustained success in the market. In a world that is increasingly connected, digital and informed, and where consumers are quick to act and react, the biggest challenge for brands, says Farrell, is keeping up. They can be in one day, and out the next. The key to remaining relevant, then, is becoming deeply embedded in the daily conversations that are taking place.

“If you look at the marketing landscape, there’s so much noise out there, and brands are constantly fighting for attention,” says Farrell. “How do you make an impactful difference? If brands want to thrive today, they have to be completely immersed in the action, be part of our lives.” For the agency, this means anchoring brands in popular culture, which McPherson defines as a set of practices, beliefs, and objects that are dominant or ubiquitous in a society at a given point in time.

“For us, popular culture is the dominant conversation,” he says. “It’s what’s happening around us; it’s what people are talking about, worrying about, excited about. It’s politics, music, fashion, literature, dance. But it’s also Instagram and Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and SnapChat. It’s global warming, fake news, artificial intelligence and data privacy. If a brand is part of the popular culture conversation, it is a part of consumer lives; it’s that simple.”

Pop culture

The tricky part is keeping up with pop culture, which, of course, is constantly changing. This is where The Machinery comes into play. “It’s a way of organising ourselves; a system of working, but also a philosophy of how we work,” Farrell explains. “Campaigns aren’t linear anymore, and the ‘always-on’ approach is one we need to use. Because we’re a company made of specialist divisions, we have the format to do that.”

Publicis Machine comprises several specialisations that have been established over the years. Integrated but operating independently and able to attract clients on their own steam, these divisions include Answered, which focuses on research and insights; NURUN, concentrated on technology; Narrative, tasked with content; and Moon Walk, responsible for influencer- and media relations. The system has grown from the agency’s roots in digital branding and communication.

By changing the way in which the specialist teams think of the brands with which they work (from time-based projects with beginnings and endings to constantly-moving, ongoing processes), Farrell and McPherson believe they can create a brand culture that is able to keep in step with society. “The branding process should never stop at the end of a traditional campaign, because every campaign should yield new insights that should give rise to the next narrative. And so on, ad infinitum,” says McPherson.

ROI and stability

If they’re successful in their endeavors, it could mean excellent ROI for clients, as well as serious stability kickbacks for the agency. “If you ingrain brands in popular culture, if you make them relevant to the market and secure mid- to long-term success for them in that market position, it secures your role as an agency in their world,” explains Farrell.

The Machinery has been a long time in the making. Publicis Machine has effectively been operating on these kinds of principles for years already; it just hadn’t articulated as much, says Farrell. “The Machinery is not the result of hours of boardroom-strategising but rather the consolidation of tried-and-tested working methodologies that have successfully inserted brands into consumer conversation — and kept them there, no matter how fast the conversation moves,” he says. As examples, he cites the agency’s local work with longstanding client Red Bull, renowned for its support of trend-setting sounds, and Martell Cognac in its association with the Afropunk festival.

“Machine has always been the sum of its parts, and creativity has always been our differentiator,” adds McPherson. “We’ve always been close to the pulse of the zeitgeist, and applied insights to make work that is relevant.”

Market perception

Despite significant management changes in recent months, the market perception of the agency hasn’t taken a knock, says Farrell, and the operational team is on a good footing. He describes business performance as solid, with revenue poised to grow in excess of 10% this year, and the churn rate for talent staying below 5%. Publicis Machine hasn’t bid farewell to any clients over the past year and has started working on new business, including PR and content for fintech innovation hub, Barclays Rise Cape Town.

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  • Office locations: Cape Town, Johannesburg
  • Revenue band: R50m
  • Staff count: 100
  • Key clients: Pernod Ricard, Red Bull, Direct Axis, Emirates, Sanlam Reality
  • Services: TTL (strategy, creative, digital, technology, content marketing, research, PR & influencer)


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to, her new column “#AgencyFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.

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