Before “Marcel,” There Was Pangaea: Inside JWT’s Two-Year Head Start On Publicis Groupe

Carla Serrano, the chief strategy officer for Publicis Groupe, looks right at the camera and declares that “Marcel”—the internal communications platform that the group will spend the next year developing—will be “the first ever professional assistant that uses AI and machine-learning technology.” So begins the “video heard ‘round the ad world,” during which Publicis chairman and CEO Arthur Sadoun sent shockwaves through the industry with the announcement that his team would forego any award shows or industry events for 2018 in an effort to funnel all of their creative and financial resources into this new system. For most viewers, it was this—Sadoun’s claim of event abstinence—that raised their eyebrows. But for Mark Sylvester, community strategist for J. Walter Thompson, it was the “first ever” assertion that rang loudest in his ears.

Publicis Groupe Introduces the platform Marcel

“I grinned when I watched that video,” says Sylvester. “I thought, ‘You guys, this is not an easy problem to solve.’” And he would know, you see, because he had already done it.

JWT already has a “Marcel” of their very own (or at least, the beginning of one). It’s called Pangaea, and it was developed almost two years ago and implemented with little fanfare. “We kept it to ourselves,” Sylvester admits. “We saw it as a ‘secret weapon.’ How do we tap into the collective intelligence at JWT?” Sylvester and his team saw an opportunity to do more than just build an intranet, so they reached out to Swiss-based software company Starmind and began asking about the possibilities of merging mobile app technology with AI in order to better connect their staff (which Sylvester describes as being, on average, “highly mobile, 27 year-old creative members of the ‘digerati’”) A digital veteran, Sylvester operated by the old film special FX mantra “don’t talk about stuff you can’t use,” so his team toiled away on making Pangaea a useable resource first and foremost.

Felipe Gomide, the chief technical officer at Mirum Brazil who worked closely with Sylvester and JWT on this project since the very start, explains that the secrecy was born out of this same sense of practicality.

“This project actually kicked off in November 2015, and from the beginning we started discussing, are we going to go market with this project? Are we going to sell this to our clients? Or are we going to use this as a differential for our services?’” says Gomide.  “What is the story behind it? What do we actually want to do with it? And all of the responses that we got from the steering committee on this project was let’s make sure it works first, before we tell anybody that we have it. We have to first see if it makes a difference in our day to day business before we even considering publicizing this.”

Although Sylvester and Gomide admit that the Publicis announcement may have stolen their thunder a bit, both agree that getting the wheels turning internally first was more important. As Gomide puts it, “The risk for [Publicis] to over-promise and under-deliver is very high, because you’re setting user expectations really, really high.” JWT and Mirum launched their first beta in March 2016, had a soft launch in July, and eventually unveiled it to the entire group globally in October.

To be clear, however, Pangaea is not Marcel. At least not yet. Nor is it Siri or Cortana. “It’s not a personal assistant,” explains Gomide. “If you were going to describe Pangaea as a person, she’s the most popular person in your workplace, because she knows everybody. So she will point you to the right person. It more leverages the human aspect of the workplace rather than replacing it.”  Or, as Sylvester puts it: “She’s not the smartest person in the room, but she knows who the smartest people are.”  JWT is already seeing the results, too. During preparations for a pitch to a Brazilian TV network, Pangaea quickly proved her worth. “The last phase of the pitch was going to be a workshop with the client and we needed to be ready to collaborate with the client on a workshop to win the business,” says Gomide. “So we reached out to Pangaea to see if we had anyone who had insights on TV networks around the globe. And we got an answer from somebody in our Toronto office – within an hour we got an answer from him, he gave us lots of insights that we might not have had upfront for our meeting with the client and that really made the difference winning a new business worth $7 million. So it was the best case study for Pangaea. We never would have thought to reach out to Canada for a project in Brazil.”

Pangaea was designed on an agnostic architecture, so it is intended to work and play well with multiple AI’s as well as the human brain. The intention is for the platform to evolve over time. This planned evolution is another reason why Gomide, Sylvester, and JWT weren’t quick to announce what they have, because they’re not entirely sure what it will eventually become.

“We know how far we are in developing something like that, that kind of intelligence on a platform, and we’re not there yet,” says Gomide. “And we’re already two years into the making! Obviously, with huge amounts of investment, [Publicis] might pull it off. But from my perspective it’s not as easy as it seems.”