Publicis Groupe is one of the biggest communications groups in the world, coming in third in Europe and fourth in the U.S. In 2017, the group earned more than $10.9 billion from its different subsidiaries, which include Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett, Digitas, and Performics.
The company began in 1926 when founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet decided to set up the fourth advertising agency in France’s history. It was soon regarded as one of the most modern advertising agencies in France, and by the 1980s, Publicis had expanded its operations to an international scale, starting from other European countries to the U.S. and then to Latin America. The company now operates in more than 100 countries and with over 80,000 employees.
To maintain its effective operations, Publicis Groupe divided itself into four major solution hubs: Publicis Communications, Publicis Sapient, Publicis Media, and Publicis Health. Their business model allows their subsidiaries to exist while sharing a common operational backbone that gives them access to all solution hubs so that they can “compete and win in new world markets.”
Publicis Groupe works with top pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer, and Bayer/Monsanto, as well as food corporations like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, and Burger King. However, its services aren’t just offered to businesses. They also work with governments, such as those of Australia and Saudi Arabia.
Publicis Groupe’s public relations work for Saudi Arabia
In its many years in business, Publicis Groupe has already been involved in numerous controversies. One of the company’s subsidiaries, Qorvis, received a lot of backlash in 2017 when it was revealed that Saudi Arabia had been paying them to recruit and exploit military veterans to encourage Congress to make amendments to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) of the U.S The compensation that they received included luxurious all-expense paid trips, including a stay at the Trump International Hotel which costs approximately $500 per night.
According to the veterans who were contacted for this purpose, they were not informed as to who were behind the trip and what they were expected to tell the Congress. Moreover, there is evidence that in order to convince the veterans of participating, they were made to believe that if other countries passed laws similar to the JASTA, individual military service members can be sued in foreign courts.
This was just the latest development in the relationship between Qorvis and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Back in 2002, the company already received more than $14 million from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia for their public relations work that counters accusations regarding their possible involvement and lack of action against terrorism. This happened right after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which put the Middle East at the center of many U.S. foreign policies. To achieve this, the company practiced some other questionable tactics like running pro-Saudi advertisements, which were supposedly from an activist group called Alliance for Peace and Justice.
In addition, Saudi Arabia also employed the help of Qorvis between 2010 to 2015, to whitewash the kingdom’s image in the U.S. This was a critical move since it was during this time that Saudi launched its devastating war against Yemen, which the United Nations calls as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” A report published on The Intercept, revealed that in order to promote the war, Qorvis created the website OperationRenewalOfHope.com and “researched potential grassroots supporters in select states.”
Publicis Groupe’s relationship with Google
Over the years, Publicis Groupe has forged a solid partnership with tech giant Google, which has become an important player in the digital advertising business. The clients of Publicis can be attributed for a huge portion of the revenue that Google earns purely on display. However, a report published in TechCrunch revealed that the reason why Publicis is constantly pushing millions of advertising dollars through Google is because they have a setup that allows for kickbacks or rebates.
Kurt Unkel, who was at that time the Senior Vice President of Publicis’ digital arm, Vivaki, denied these allegations, claiming that what they have is “a strategic partnership” and that they are not accepting from Google, adding that “that is illegal in the U.S.”
On the other hand, a Google spokesperson admitted that there are incentives, which fall along the lines of investing in the trading platform, co-marketing, and training if the agency hits specific milestones. However, they claim that “there is no commission being paid,” implying that there are payments but they are framed differently. TechCrunch claims that this is because direct rebates can raise “antitrust concerns” regarding Google’s market share in display advertising.
In 2013, Google signed a $100 million deal with DigitasLBi and Razorfish, which are digital agencies under Publicis Groupe, for advertising on Google’s banner and mobile advertising networks. This also extends to sites like Google Plus, Hangouts, and YouTube. Through this deal, Publicis was able to acquire advertising inventory at a discount, which gives them the scale and savings that television ads offer.
La Maison is another display of the strong relationship between Google and Publicis Groupe. This marketing service was established by the two companies along with Conde Nast in 2014 to produce better content for the luxury market. In this project, Publicis will be working hand in hand with Google to collect data on consumer trends while Conde Nast is responsible for providing clients with advice on what type of content the consumers want.
In 2017, many companies started to cut their ties with Google since their advertisements were appearing in YouTube videos with “unsavory” content that they do not want to be associated with. This problem resulted from the inability of Google to check all of its content before ads appear alongside them. Some brands that pulled out their advertisements from Google include HSBC, McDonald’s, L’Oreal, Audi, and the BBC. This issue also caused Publicis Groupe to reconsider its relationship with the company.
A report published in The Guardian revealed that extremists and hate preachers have earned more than $318,000 from these ads. The Egyptian-Qatari Salafi Muslim preacher Wagdi Ghoneim, who is banned from the U.K. due to terrorist concerns, was one of those who benefited from this. He reportedly gained approximately $78,000 from ads in his anti-western propaganda videos. However, Google claimed that the extremists only gained “tens of pounds,” without showing any revenue reports.
Involvement with NewsGuard
In 2018, Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz founded the news rating agency NewsGuard with the help of their investors. Since then, NewsGuard has acquired more than $6 million from 16 investors, with Publicis Groupe being one of its major contributors, coming in just after its founders. This agency claims to help stop fake news from spreading with the help of journalists who will “operate under a transparent, accountable process” to review 7,500 news and information websites.
Some of NewsGuard’s ratings have already received criticisms due to their obvious bias. For example, the Voice of America, which is funded by the U.S. government, has been given good ratings even if it was reformed to “provide news that supports our [U.S.] national security objectives,” which makes it more like a propaganda device. Meanwhile, RT received a red rating for supposedly raising doubts about the U.S. government and its allies.
This bias could have resulted from the conflict between what the agency claims to do and the interests of the people behind it since NewsGuard appears to have connections with the U.S. government, neoconservatives, and powerful moneyed interests, such as Publicis Groupe and its powerful clients. This could affect how NewsGuard rates websites that are credible but produce bad publicity for such clients.
“Given its political positions and who is funding it, my fear is that NewsGuard will have the effect of discrediting good-quality independent media while bolstering the most powerful corporate outlets,” said Alan MacLeod of the Glasgow University Media Group, who researches and writes on propaganda and fake news.
However, co-founder Brill claims that NewsGuard’s relationship with Publicis and its subsidiaries should not make people worry, claiming that “Publicis has nothing to do with the content or operations of NewsGuard and has a small stake in the company.” Brill also said that he and Crovitz have controlling interest over the company. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make things any better since Crovitz has been associated with neoconservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which played a pivotal role in the Iraq war. Moreover, Crovitz has been accused – on numerous instances – of presenting false information in his articles during his time as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal.
A quick look at NewsGuard’s advisory board also casts more doubt on the intentions of the company. It includes Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security during Bush’s administration, Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) Director Michael Hayden, and PBS Chairman Don Baer. Former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and self-proclaimed “chief propagandist,” also belongs to NewsGuard’s board of advisers.