Publicis hunts for digital start-ups to fund

As the advertising and communications agency Publicis celebrates its 90th an­niver­sary, it is offering prizes of up to €500,000 (Dh2.05 million) to 90 planned or fresh digital start-ups. Alex Saber, the chairman for Middle East and Africa (Mena) of both the media agency Starcom Mediavest Group and advertising programming arm VivaKi, reveals more about the competition that ends on February 28, which is open to students, entrepreneurs and even Publicis’s own employees.

Tell us more about Publicis.

Publicis was founded in 1926 in a little Parisian apartment on Rue Montmartre by Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, when his only staff was his secretary. Publicis Groupe is now the third-largest communications group in the world, specialising in advertising, public affairs and events, media buying and communications. Bleustein-Blanchet’s daughter Elisabeth Badinter [a 71-year-old author, worth US$1.8 billion, according to Forbes] is still chairwoman of the advisory board. The company has been in this region for decades through its brands, which include Leo Burnett, Starcom Mediavest Group, Zen­ith Media, Optimedia, Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis Worldwide and DigitasLBi.

Tell us about your time with the company.

I joined Leo Burnett Dubai’s media department 22 years ago at the tender age of 23 before relocating to Saudi Arabia in 1997 to set up Starcom Saudi. In 2001, I returned to launch MediaVest Dubai as managing director and, as I expanded it to other Middle East markets, also became the group buying director for the region. I became VivaKi’s Mena chief operations officer in 2005 and chairman in 2011.

Have you ever run a competition like this before?

No, this is the first time.

What sort of start-ups are you most interested in?

We would like to keep the scope comprehensive, but it has to relate to the digital transformation of our industry and complement the group’s services – for instance, communication, media, e-commerce, social media, big data or analytics.

Tell us about the rules.

The only criteria we care about are the quality of the idea and how it relates to the digital transformation. Anyone with a good idea is welcome to apply. If the company already exists, it has to have a revenue under €10m and be no more than five years old to be eligible to submit. Applicants will have to present an executive summary of their project and, if they go through to the second round, they will be asked to present a detailed business plan and a short video to explain their project.

Who are the judges?

In the first round, all 70,000 Publicis employees will be asked to review the projects and vote for their five favourites. In the next round, Iris Capital – the venture capital fund that manages Orange Publicis Ventures [a joint fund between Orange Telecom and Publicis investing in European digital companies] – will decide the finalists. Finally, there will be a regional panel for each market – Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) – deciding 50 finalists per region, and a global Publicis jury choosing the 90 projects and how much funding each will receive.

Is there a fixed number allowed to enter in the Middle East?

There is absolutely no quota for entries per region and no pre-planned breakdown in terms of external versus employees’ projects, geography or early-stage versus seed. Given the immense talent we have in the Mena region, I have no doubt we will receive remarkable submissions from our market.

How much prize money is on offer?

There are no funding tiers. The jury will decide how much funding each project should receive. For the 90 winning projects, the minimum level of funding will be €10,000 for seed start-ups and €100,000 for early-stage start-ups. There will also be some additional funding, for a couple of the most interesting start-ups, up to €50,000 for seed and €500,000 for early stage. This will be a discretionary decision by the jury.

How old do entrants have to be?

The only age limit we are imposing is that of the minimum legal age in entrants’ country of residence [21 in the UAE], so only minors are excluded from the project.

Are there other prizes or support for the winners?

Group experts in marketing, communications, management and technology will mentor the selected projects. Each will be paired with a senior digital manager for a year. And all selected projects will be invited to participate in Viva Technology Forum (an event that links digital start-ups with the people who matter) in Paris from June 30 to July 2.

* To enter, go to

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Suzanne Locke

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