Alison Weissbrot
Jun 20, 2023

Amid AI craze, Publicis says ‘we did it first’ in cheeky campaign in Cannes

As agencies and holding companies scramble to build generative AI products, Publicis is celebrating Marcel’s 6th birthday on the Croisette

Amid AI craze, Publicis says ‘we did it first’ in cheeky campaign in Cannes

>Six years ago, Publicis Groupe announced far and wide that it would sit out the Cannes Lions festival — where it had been a mainstay on the Croisette for decades — to funnel the savings into an internal AI-powered talent platform called Marcel. 


As the holding company publicly shared plans to scale back its presence at the festival, the strategy drew criticism from industry onlookers who saw it as nothing more than a PR stunt. 


This year, as adland flocks to the South of France after the pandemic threw a wrench in the annual pilgrimage, AI is expected to be the hottest topic at the festival; for the past few months, agencies and holding companies have scrambled to partner and integrate with the latest generative AI tools. 


Publicis saw an opportunity to use the hype as a vehicle to position itself as a first mover. On Monday, the holding company unveiled a campaign on the main festival drag poking fun at the industry’s current AI craze with tongue-in-cheek creative that says “we did it first.” 


The out-of-home campaign uses AI to recreate reactions the industry had to the initial announcement of Marcel back in 2017. Each image includes a prompt that has been fed to the latest version of Midjourney, overlaid on top of the generative AI bot’s response. 


One image, for instance, says “/imagine prompt: Ad executive in Cannes reacting to the launch of Marcel, Publicis’ AI tool, back in 2017,” overlaying an AI-created image of a man in a suit cackling into a cellphone in front of a row of yachts. 


Each image has a prompt in the bottom left corner: “Is it ok to talk about AI in Cannes now?”





The campaign intentionally pokes fun at the industry’s recent embrace of AI, after criticizing Publicis' rollout of Marcel not long ago, said Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer of Publicis Groupe and CEO of Publicis New York. 


“Six years ago, we were persona non grata when we talked about AI on the Croisette in Cannes. Six years later, it is very much a huge part of our industry and one that we're all grappling with,” she said. “Even though it's a tongue-in-cheek campaign — it's a little bit like, ‘we told you so.’”


Marcel at six


While Publicis’ campaign aims to position it ahead of its competitors on AI, the Marcel that the holding company launched in 2018 as an internal talent forum and learning and development platform is very different now.


The latest release on the platform is PublicisGPT, through which staff can access various APIs, including the latest generative AI models from OpenAI, in a private environment. The hub has three modules: SandboxGPT, which offers secure access to generative AI tools; GalleryGPT, which hosts case studies and information on key players and startups in the AI ecosystem; and FactoryGPT, where talent can use AI to build their own applications and store them in a secure environment. 


“It's [about] knowledge empowerment,” Serrano said. “We know that this trend is not going away. So everybody has to be AI knowledgeable and an AI practitioner in their own right.”


Staff are still engaging with Marcel’s original use cases as well. For instance, employees continue to use a smart matching feature that places out of work people in open positions and gigs across the network that fit their skill sets, which saved 2,500 jobs during the pandemic, Publicis said.


Marcel offers access to 30,000 learning and development courses, which approximately 45,000 employees are taking on a monthly basis. And more than 150 talent communities on the platform receive 200,000 interactions per month, according to internal data shared with Campaign US.


Plus, since it launched in December 2021, 3,000 people have participated in Work Your World, a program which uses Marcel to identify opportunities for talent to work abroad for up to six weeks at another Publicis office. 


According to Publicis chief talent officer Emmanuel Andre, 83,000 staffers globally use Marcel “regularly,” putting it at a 93% adoption rate. 


“Now that people are mostly back to the office, people are going to think of it as not a palliative sort of relief thing, but as something that is integrated with their work [as part of] the employee experience at Publicis,” he said. 


According to Marco Venturelli, chief creative officer of Publicis France, Publicis’ creative teams are already seeing how AI can make ambitious ideas come to life while speeding up execution. 


“Before, in a way, we had some constraints, practical concerns of execution, time-wise and resource-wise. The field of possibility just got bigger,” he said. “Everything becomes possible. [We can] go back to talk a bit more about strategy and ideas when the execution is kind of a given.”


Marcel’s future 


Marcel celebrates its sixth birthday in Cannes at a time when every company in advertising is furiously calculating how their business can adapt to the changes brought about by the explosion of AI. 


According to a recent Forrester report, as AI tools become more deeply embedded in agency processes, the technology will replace 7.5% of agency jobs by 2030. Generative AI in particular is forecast to significantly transform creative professions.


Beneath the campaign’s cheeky tone is a desire to push the conversation on AI away from the fluff and hype that is so common at industry festivals and towards actionable debate, Serrano said. She nodded to Publicis’ recent decision to join the C2PA — which aims to set standards for content authentication and AI disclosures — as a steering committee member. 


“Over the last few years, the festival has jumped on bandwagons,” Serrano said. “AI is different. Now that everyone knows that it is a tool that has incredible potential in our industry…we need to debate it... We’ve got to be talking about standards and governance right now, because this thing is going to get out of control otherwise.”


(This article first appeared on

Campaign India

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