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Microsoft and Publicis unveil Marcel, an AI-based productivity platform for the ad giant

Ingrid Lunden
Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella has refocussed to double down on enterprise,

Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella has refocussed to double down on enterprise, artificial intelligence and cloud services, and today the company took the wraps a new project for advertising giant Publicis that shows how it is leveraging all three to expand its business. At an event in Paris, the CEOs of the two companies unveiled Marcel, a new platform comprised of multiple apps using AI, social networking mechanics, voice recognition, predictive analytics and more aimed at getting Publicis' 80,000 employees to be more productive and work together better.

The first three apps on Marcel -- named after Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the founder of Publicis who had an interesting second career as a fighter in the French Resistance -- will be Daily Six, Expert Match and Open Brief, with plans to add more apps over time, CEO and chairman Arthur Sadoun said in an interview this week. They've been trialled so far with 100 employees and will be rolling out more widely from today.

The move is an interesting turn for Publicis, currently the world's third-largest advertising agency, to defragment and improve how its organization works.

In keeping with the norm in the ad world, Publicis has been built up by way of acquisitions, and operates essentially as a holding company for all of them to largely continue working in their silos. While that might have been a useful model when the organization was smaller, at 80,000 employees it runs the risk of being inefficient, and could easily lead to many missed business opportunities for Publicis.

Now the aim will be to try to disrupt that model with technology. "We are committing to learn more, to share more, and create more," Sadoun said.

Or as Microsoft's Nadella put it today at the Marcel event in more -- err -- flowery words, "Our job is to find rose petals in a field of shit," he said, describing how he talks about motivating teams at Microsoft to think in a more forward way. "Our job is to find, in a constrained world, ways to make things happen. That's what this is all about."

For Microsoft, working on Marcel is something of a home run for the company, in that it hits all three key bases -- AI, enterprise and cloud -- that Microsoft has been hoping will help propel the company into the future and away from being relegated to a role as a has-been in the software world best known for Windows and Office.

Playing on the concept of 'consumerization of IT,' where apps and mechanics that have proven popular are used in enterprise services to get employees more engaged in them, each app in Marcel has echoes of services that you might have seen and used in the consumer world.

Daily Six presents six pieces of content to the user that is tailored to him or her. They might include key updates from a current account, suggestions for creative activities, and reading recommendations -- selections that are based on what a specific employee is already working on, and what he or she might want to do next.

Expert Match, meanwhile, is a very LinkedIn-style service that helps connect employees who are looking for answers or advice on specific questions, or mentorship, with those who are willing to help out.

Lastly, Open Brief will be a way for outside clients to put out requests for input or work to the wider group, and for a small selection of people who might have skills relevant to those requests to put in offers to work on them. Both this app and Expert Match use voice and video, and are powered by Cortana to pick up cues from the requests to power the recommendations that are made.

All three are opt-in -- that is, employees, in keeping with GDPR data protection principles, will have to consent to using them and having their data be a part of the Marcel mix.

Sadoun would not go into too much detail about who else might have put in requests to build Marcel -- which it first said it wanted to work on a year ago, and announced in January that Microsoft had clinched the deal to build it -- and nor would he be drawn out about the business model behind it. (He did concede that Google, with its extensive ad business, remains a "frenemy", so while Publicis and Google do work together, this that might have kept it out of the running.) What he did say is that Nadella personally got involved with the pitch and lured Sadoun and his team over to Seattle to help seal the deal.

"One day I received a call from Satya saying Microsoft wanted to be a part of this," Sadoun said. "We had a great time in Seattle. I understodod his vision of Microsoft, and saw that it was close to our vision of Marcel. That's how we started this partnership."

While there is not detail about the financial terms of Marcel, it's likely that there will be several elements at play: the building the apps; moving data in and out of Azure; licensing technology to run the apps; and so on.

And as Publicis and Microsoft bring more of Microsoft's AI smarts into the mix to help Publicis work better, it's worth pointing out that -- at least for now -- the AI has a limit. I asked, and was told in no uncertain terms by Sadoun that there are no intentions of building AI products that might actually create the ads themselves.

"I think that AI will never replace emotional intelligence," he said. "It will help us to leverage the talent in the room, tapping people who deserve to do and grow more."