annette king

Passion, courage and a steely competitive edge: how Annette King is building Publicis Groupe UK

Three years in and the chief of Publicis Groupe UK is as hungry as ever

By Claire Beale

Annette King is the most powerful woman in British advertising right now.

Scrap that. She’s the most powerful person in British advertising right now, at least if you discount the global set.

It's three years since Publicis Groupe’s CEO Arthur Sadoun snatched her from the Ogilvy womb to take on the newly created role of UK country manager, lassoing all of the PG agency brands (including Leo Burnett, Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis.Poke, Zenith and Starcom) into her control.

What a time to be carrying the weight of that challenge, when the industry is at such a vital moment of reset, when clients are rebuilding, when confidence is growing but uncertainty lingers. And when clear, decisive, ambitious and empathetic leadership has never been more called for. So 36 months into her reign - and having spent half of that time navigating the pandemic - how is King squaring up to that challenge?

One eloquent answer to that question came this week when Publicis Groupe UK unveiled an industry-leading set of “family-friendly” policies as part of its programme of initiatives aimed at creating a more inclusive workplace. The new policies include increasing full-pay maternity leave from 16 weeks to 26 weeks, with adoption leave, surrogacy leave and shared parental leave also all now set at 26 weeks full pay, while second parent leave increases from two to four weeks on full pay.

Under King's watch the UK Groupe has also introduced a Behavioural Charter setting out the inclusive behaviour expected from all staff, a Headline service to support mental wellness, a flexible working framework and a menopause policy.

These vital reforms were overdue but almost certainly wouldn’t have happened at scale or pace without King to drive them through. And though they won’t silence those observers who say she hasn’t yet pulled off that mega new business win that will secure her legacy, they are winning over talent and driving a more collegiate sentiment, so necessary for commercial success.

When I think of Annette King I picture her teeth-gritted, sleeves rolled (in spirit, if not fact), eyes narrowing as she takes competitive aim. She is an instinctive leader and - when it comes to chasing business growth - a scrapper who thrives on the scent of commercial battle. She cares to her core about winning for her team and for her company.

That certainly makes her demanding; she loves the business and is always all-in. And she expects the same from the senior people around her. But she’s also got real capacity for kindness, thoughtfulness, supportiveness. And fun. She’s a fiercely loyal colleague/friend to fiercely loyal colleagues/friends. And she’s a good sport.

“This business is tough, right? But there’s always something you can find to laugh about,” she laughs.

King worked her way to the top of her industry by determination, passion and wiles rather than being carried there on the public school connections and boys-club politics of the era. The grit that got her there still bites - particularly when she is squaring up to the competition or feels someone is not playing for the team - but she’s also matured into an empathetic, intuitive and hugely impressive leader. Sadoun, who says he’d been trying to persuade King to join Publicis for years before she finally said yes, describes her as “an exceptional leader, driven, courageous, full of humanity, and she is passionate about people and the product”.

I ask her if it’s important to her - as a successful woman - to be a role model for women coming up behind her. ‘My position on this has been consistent over the years,” she says thoughtfully. “I hope I’m a role model for people. And that absolutely of course includes women, it includes people from all walks of life."

"To be a role model for anyone is an honour and a privilege. I am female, and so if I can help females then I do. But why can’t a man learn from me? I mentor quite a few people every week, I really enjoy it and most importantly I hope I’m helping them. But my aim is to try to be a role model for everyone. I’m a fair-ist.”

She describes the Publicis Groupe UK culture that’s emerged over the last three years as “connected, collaborative, people actually like each other”. The approach now is “very much about being flexible, can-do, about client-first, Viva La Difference-based”. Sadoun admits “I was impressed by how quickly she embraced the Publicis culture and the Power of One. She has killed the P&L silos while maintaining and reinforcing the power of each of our brands, in record timing.” 

King has streamed the UK business into seven key components, each steered by leaders to whom the individual agency CEOs report - creative (Magnus Djaba), media (Sue Frogley), production (Claire Donald), data and commerce (Ben Silcox), health (Philip Chin) and influence/PR (Chris McCafferty). Those seven leaders, alongside the group CFO (Graeham Sampson), the chief talent officer (Paula Cunnington), the chief growth officer (Jo Coombs) and the head of comms (Eleanor Conroy).

It’s fair to say some PG UK staff have found this structure frustrating, claiming that the layers of management can slow things down, create obstacles to agile decision-making and drive uniformity across sibling agencies. Yet cross-agency collaboration is a key principle of PG’s ‘One Publicis’ strategy and is an increasingly important driver of its growth; co-operation at that scale needs meticulous organisation. And there’s certainly, finally, a clarity about the UK Groupe offer and structure that gives it a point of difference in the market; other holding companies have - so far - a much more fragmented approach.

King says that having group leadership was also a massive positive when it came to dealing with the immediate and on-going challenges of the pandemic. “It was a bit of a command and control moment when Covid hit…we were able to be really clear really quickly and let people know across the group that we had their backs and we were going to sort it. As we’re starting to come out of it, again we’ve got a modal way of working for our agencies based on a ‘heads down, heads together, heads up' approach - it’s an interesting, flexible framework for the new working life and then it’s up to the individual agencies how they implement it.

Despite the importance of a group approach through Covid, and one issues such as staff welfare, King’s very clear on the need to protect the different cultures of each of the agencies in her care. “Whatever you do at group level to make things more collaborative, those individual agency cultures need to stay intact,” she insists. “That doesn’t mean you can’t overlay a light group culture."

"I’m pretty good at culture, at seeing the tangible elements of it, understanding the reality of it. I’m also pretty straight, I don’t mess around.”

Over the course of the last three years King has changed about two thirds of the agencies’ leadership, making internal promotions such as Nadine Young, now the CEO of Starcom, and David Hackworthy, Publicis Groupe UK chief strategy officer, and also bringing in fresh blood, like Charlie Rudd as the CEO of Leo Burnett and Ben Mooge, the Publicis Groupe UK chief creative officer, and, more recently, John Hadfield, the incoming CEO of Publicis.Poke, and Chris Kay, the in-coming CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi. And she’s brought in new agencies too, nicely broadening the Groupe offer with the acquisition of integrated B2B marketing agency Octopus and boutique PR agency Taylor Herring.

These changes are helping drive a new buoyancy in the UK group after last year’s inevitable contraction. Last week King helped Zenith retain and expand the £63m media account for Nestle, while Publicis Groupe’s second quarter results revealed 10 percent organic growth for the UK.

King is characteristically optimistic things are going to keep getting better. “More and more clients are looking for help with their own transformation journey, they’re having to transform on the hoof, and we can help them with a lot of that across the Groupe. Clients need business partners, not suppliers, to help them navigate that journey, and that’s where the group’s strengths come in. We can pull all the right people together and create a customised service model team to help drive that high end transformation stuff.”

When I ask Sadoun what he hopes King will deliver for PG over the next three years, his answer is short and on point: “I hope she will continue to lead the change in the UK market when it comes to our product. Make Publicis in the UK one of the most diverse and equitable places to work. And win in the new business battlefield.” It’s exactly the sort of brief King lives for.


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