AI Replaces Chief Metaverse Officers

Promotion titan Publicis Groupe made an exceptional executive hire in mid-2022 — a lion-headed digital avatar named Leon who would serve as “chief metaverse officer,” guiding clients through the virtual realm that had captured real-world attention.

His time in the spotlight didn’t last long.

Five months later, ChatGPT debuted, and the excitement that had encircled the metaverse ever since Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook as Meta Platforms shifted to artificial intelligence. Leon and other human officers concentrated on the metaverse, an immersive digital reality where people can interact with one another, quickly became an endangered species.

Executives leading metaverse efforts at Walt Disney, Procter & Gamble, and Creative Artists Agency departed. Leon’s LinkedIn profile (yes, he had one), no longer exists, and there’s no mention of him on the company’s website, other than his introductory news release. Publicis Groupe declined to comment on the record.

Instead, companies are scrambling to appoint AI leaders, with Accenture and HealthCare making recent hires. A few metaverse executives have even reinvented themselves as AI experts, switching from one trending technology to the next. Compensation packages average well above $1 million, according to a survey from executive-search and leadership advisory firm Heidrick & Struggles. Last month, Publicis said it would invest $327 million over the next three years on artificial intelligence technology and talent.

“It’s been a long time since I have had a conversation with a client about the metaverse,” said Fawad Bajwa, the global AI practice leader at the Russell Reynolds Associates executive search and advisory firm. “The metaverse might still be there, but it’s a lonely place.”

The C-suite reshuffling illustrates the unpredictable nature of technology trends, and the challenge corporations face in distinguishing between hype and reality.

Most companies have largely moved on from the metaverse. The word was uttered just twice on earnings calls at S&P 500 businesses last quarter, compared with 63 times in the first quarter of 2022, according to Bloomberg transcript data. That year, eight out of 10 CEOs said they were either hiring dedicated talent with expertise in the space or expanding the responsibilities of their leadership teams to cover it, according to Russell Reynolds. All were chasing a piece of a global business opportunity that McKinsey & Co. consultants at the time optimistically estimated could be worth $5 trillion by 2030.

Apple’s decision to refer to its new mixed-reality headset Vision Pro as a “spatial computing” device, with no meta-mentions whatsoever, is another indication that “the focus has definitely shifted,” according to Nada Usina, CEO and co-founder of NU Advisory Partners, an executive search and advisory firm focused on boards and the C-suite. Microsoft last month overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable public company, largely thanks to investors’ enthusiasm for its aggressive investment in AI. Even Meta’s Zuckerberg, who once proclaimed the metaverse “the next frontier,” has recently focused instead on generative AI after spending billions on metaverse initiatives that have borne little fruit.

All that has left some meta-mavens seeking new pastures or rejiggering their roles. Joanna Popper, CAA’s chief metaverse officer, left the talent agency after just over a year and then served a stint as a “board observer” at entertainment-focused AI startup, which has a partnership with CAA. (Popper did not respond to a request for comment.) Pratik Thakar, who spearheaded Coca-Cola’s metaverse efforts with its interactive “Real Magic” marketing campaign in 2021, is now global head of generative AI for the beverage giant.

Not every metaverse guru can follow suit. The skills of artificial intelligence leaders “are quite different,” Bajwa said. “You don’t just want to repurpose somebody. You will not get the deep expertise you want.”

At least one metaverse executive fell victim to a corporate coup. Disney’s Michael White left after Bob Iger returned to run the Mouse House and axed White’s metaverse department amid a broader overhaul. He’s now chief product officer at the self-driving car business Zoox, owned by Amazon. Typically, there’s less palace intrigue: P&G’s Ioana Matei quietly left the Pampers-maker last summer and is now running innovation at a global agricultural firm. White did not respond to Bloomberg interview requests, and Matei declined to comment.

Some metaverse chiefs remain, including Yaiza Rubio at Spanish telecom Telefonica and Nelly Mensah at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. But their expertise spans several emerging technologies, such as digital ledger blockchain. And even companies that want to explore the metaverse’s uses may opt for a consultant now, said Aliceson Robinson with Heidrick & Struggles. “There is still interest in engaging with consumers in the metaverse, but not as a C-suite hire,” said Robinson, the executive search firm’s global sector leader for consumer, technology, entertainment, and media.

Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at professional services giant Ernst & Young, said his department has probably halved its metaverse investment over the past year or so. “Some folks are making a joke out of it, like it’s done and dusted,” he said, although he’s not one of them. “There’s a ton of promise in what the metaverse can deliver,” Wong said.

In contrast, EY now has two senior executives heading up its global AI program, ensuring artificial intelligence is woven into each aspect of the business, he said. “This is a big deal for us,” Wong said.

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