Arthur Sadoun
Arthur Sadoun

The writing may be on the wall for public relations at France’s Publicis Groupe.

The decision of CEO Arthur Sadoun to ax MSL Group chief Guillaume Herbette after a four-year stint, and then eliminate the CEO position, is not exactly a ringing endorsement of PR.

It’s a shocking blow to the prestige of MSL, which traces its roots to the formation of Manning Selvage & Lee during the recession.

“All MSL offices in the world will now report to the new country structure of Publicis Groupe," wrote Sadoun in a memo to staffers.

Though Halloween is fast approaching and tales of the Headless Horseman abound, prospective global clients aren’t going to flock to the roster of a leaderless PR firm. Who’s in charge? Who knows? Does Arthur even care?

And then there’s the sad story of Publicis’ Qorvis Communications shop.

The DC PA firm is a leader in the public diplomacy category, proudly taking on all comers, including controversial clients like Saudi Arabia following the 9/11 attacks, Bahrain, People’s Republic of China, Brunei Investment Authority, Halliburton and Wells Fargo.

That swashbuckling attitude may be coming to an end.

Publicis has just whiffed on a $750K one-year contract to represent Vnesheconombank, Russia’s state-owned development unit, in its effort to ward off additional US sanctions.

An independent Qorvis would have jumped all over the Russian bank, which has a supervisory board chaired by the country’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Any global firm itching to do business with Russia or companies ruled by its oligarchs would trade a year of Wall Street Journal/New York Times placements for the opportunity to have Medvedev as a reference.

But not Sadoun.

Grace Fenstermaker, who is leaving Qorvis Communications after a seven-year stint, scooped up the VEB.RF account.

If Sadoun is gun-shy about working for the Russians, how does he allow Qorvis to continue its representation of Saudi Arabia a year after the torture, murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi atrocities in Yemen?

How does Kekst CNC fit into the Frenchman's vision for Publicis? It certainly gets involved in some nasty corporate fights.

Does PR even still register with Sadoun, who dreams of transforming Publicis into a data and technology leader that delivers personalization at scale?

Publicis shelled out a whopping $4.4B earlier this year to acquire Alliance Data Systems’ Epsilon marketing services business. Sadoun's quest is to merge Publicis’ “leadership in media with Epsilon’s unmatched deterministic, behavioral and transactions data, powered by AI.”

Heady stuff, indeed. Sadoun apparently has bigger fish to fry than PR.  

Time, though, may not be on his side as Publicis reported a lousy third quarter that fell below internal expectations and it cut guidance for the full-year.

Wall Street may decide that Sadoun’s data/technology dream is nothing more than a flight of fantasy.