What started as a little-known French advertising agency 90 years ago has become a multinational advertising and PR behemoth. Last year, Publicis Groupe unveiled a major restructuring of its media arm, Publicis Media, which includes global media agency brands Starcom, Spark Foundry, Zenith, Blue 449 and Performics.
At the core of Publicis Media is the company’s data, technology and innovation team — a small group of forward-thinking engineers building a cutting-edge marketing platform to ensure that Publicis Media stays ahead of the curve for the next 90 years.
A few team members recently shared what it’s like to work on an adtech platform at such a large scale — and why Publicis Groupe’s corporate backing allows them to innovate like a startup.
WHAT THE TEAM DOES: Through machine learning and AI, the team is building fully transparent next-gen technologies at scale to drive continuous innovation for its brands.
WHERE THEY DO IT: Soho.
TEAM BACKGROUNDS: Some team members previously solved similar problems in other industries, such as finance.
BEST TEAM QUOTE: “[Data engineering] is kind of like the engine room of a big ship. It is primarily there to make sure that the thing runs.” — Mikhail Petrenko, VP of data engineering.
YOU’RE AN IDEAL CANDIDATE IF: You can think independently, collaborate well and don’t have an ego.
What initially attracted you to Publicis?
Marjan Sebdani, data scientist: I started last June through a data science internship. The environment is very friendly and, as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated environment, I feel valued here. The company also gives me problems to solve related to what I studied for my Ph.D. I also find the ad industry an interesting place right now.
Mikhail Petrenko, VP of data engineering: The atmosphere is a unique blend of the traditional and the entrepreneurial and free spirit of a startup. One of the good things about a startup is that you’re free to make your own choices and decisions.
Rajan Narasimhan, VP of engineering: I used to work in high-frequency finance and have been here about nine months. I find adtech pretty interesting — we’re dealing with a lot of the same kinds of problems we see in finance (such as high performance and lots of messages per second), and there are additional dimensions, like machine learning, that are interesting.
Matthieu Labour, EVP of technology: I came from a finance background. After the crash in 2008, I joined a startup in New York that got acquired by Publicis two years ago.
What excites you about working in the adtech space?
Marjan Sebdani: My bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees are all in electrical engineering, but I’m really interested in Big Data and how it relates to advertising. And I found that I really like my job here.
Mikhail Petrenko: In terms of what we’re doing with data, it’s very exciting. We’re working with the most cutting-edge technology you can find, especially in adtech, because the volume of data we process is beyond comparison. We’re always using the latest and greatest tech.
It also means that whatever you do or create will most likely have to be changed, re-written or redesigned because the technology moves so fast. You can never stop thinking, innovating or changing.
Rajan Narasimhan: Finance is a more mature market, so a lot of the industry’s tech problems have been solved already. It’s fun to be able to tackle these same problems for a different industry.
Matthieu Labour: Adtech is being completely disrupted right now, so it’s a chance to be at the frontline of something that’s extremely dynamic and changing all the time. It’s the same space that Google, Facebook and Amazon are in, so there are a lot of things that have not been resolved yet.
What projects are you working on now?
Mikhail Petrenko: We do data engineering. It’s kind of like the engine room of a big ship. It is primarily to make sure that the thing runs. Our job is to make sure the data flows in, and that will ensure the whole system runs. We need to make sure that the processes and integrations we have provide the data we need — and provide it in a timely fashion.
On the other side, we are continually creating something new. As such, we need to constantly be delivering new products. We have to find the balance between developing new things and supporting the old.
How does your team operate like a startup, particularly with the resources of a huge company behind it?
Marjan Sebdani: This is a small group. It’s like working for a startup but with the benefits that a big company offers. For example, right from the start, I had the opportunity to work on big projects.
Mikhail Petrenko: You own everything you do — you make the technology. If it breaks, you have to fix it. The amazing thing about the current organization is that we maintain a free spirit. The office is an open layout, and it’s very collaborative. We’ll work together with different groups if needed and help each other out. On the other hand, we have the support of a big organization, which includes great benefits, time off and work-life balance.
Rajan Narasimhan: The agency business is a very old business, but it’s going through this radical transformation. It’s like a metamorphosis. You can’t go through that kind of a change with the old culture. You have to build a new culture that’s agile and quick like a startup. It’s almost a necessity for where we want to be.
Matthieu Labour: We have folks coming from unique backgrounds that are more entrepreneurial and would not necessarily be appreciated as much in a corporate environment. I think we have managed to keep a startup culture. We fight for it.
Can you give any specific examples of how your team has embodied this startup culture?
Mikhail Petrenko: A lot of the decisions are left to the engineers themselves. Within reason, engineers have the ability to make their own decisions and progress.
Matthieu Labour: We think that engineers are first-class citizens and we think they should be able to come up with products. So from my perspective, we are much more aligned with companies like Apple or Google than we are with banks, for example, in that engineers have significant ownership to drive products.
What makes someone successful on your team?
Mikhail Petrenko: It’s the ability to think independently and communicate well. No one on our team works alone. We work within a big, well-structured and mature organization so we are required to be both technically savvy and creative, whilst also providing a clear picture of what we are solving.
Rajan Narasimhan: First, the skills. We also look for people who are down-to-earth and smart. It helps to not have big egos — that always gets in the way of getting things done.
Photos by Ken Pao. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.