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Chief metaverse officers are out. AI is in

Bloomberg
Bloomberg • 5 min read
Chief metaverse officers are out. AI is in
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Advertising giant Publicis Groupe made an unusual 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 seized real-world attention.

His moment in the spotlight didn’t last long.

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

Executives spearheading metaverse efforts at Walt Disney Co, Procter & Gamble Co and Creative Artists Agency left. 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 press release. Publicis Groupe declined to comment on the record.

Instead, businesses are scrambling to appoint AI leaders, with Accenture and GE HealthCare making recent hires. A few metaverse executives have even reinvented themselves as AI experts, deftly switching from one hot technology to the next. Compensation packages average well above US$1 million, according to a survey from executive-search and leadership advisory firm Heidrick & Struggles. Last week, Publicis said it would invest 300 million euros 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.” 

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The C-suite reshuffle illustrates the fickle nature of technology trends — and the difficulty corporations face distinguishing hype from 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 2022’s first quarter, according to Bloomberg transcript data. That year, eight out of ten 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 US$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 sign that “the focus has definitely shifted,” according to Nada Usina, chief executive officer and co-founder of NU Advisory Partners, an executive search and advisory firm focused on boards and the c-suite. Microsoft Corp this 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.

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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 Metaphysic.ai, 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.

But not every metaverse guru can follow suit. The skill sets 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.com Inc. 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 LLP, 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, making sure 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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