Havas Paris' Vice President on why creativity is a matter of life and death for brands and the importance of the big picture
Valerie Planchez is a ‘big picture’ kind of woman. With a background in economics – she very nearly became an economics teacher – she likes to think about where brands and indeed agencies sit within the wider context of society. This is not someone who is happy to sit in a silo. But that’s why the evolution of Havas – the growth of the villages, the ever-deepening relationship with sister company Vivendi – is something that suits Valerie well.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her last year at Kinsale Sharks, where Valerie was a judge, to pick her brains about the changing face of the industry.
LBB> How did you get into the industry?
Valerie> I was very much interested in cinema. I would go at least twice a day when I was a student. In the first year I saw 300 films. And I always went early to see the small films that would run before the main film. As I knew no one in the industry, I thought, maybe it’s easier to make these ‘small films’?
But I remember being 12 or 13 and watching TV and paying attention to the ads. At that point they were like movies; they were very creative and very free. And we had a period that was so great. But now it is changing a lot and there are a lot of new perspectives and I’m quite content with what will happen in the future.
LBB> That’s interesting, the industry has been down on itself for the past couple of years but it feels like there’s a renewed faith in creativity?
Valerie> Creativity is the difference. And really, I think we have been a little lazy – the brands and the people who work in advertising - because it was so easy to catch the attention of a lot of people thanks to TV; it was just there, in front of them. Now it's not the case. And so, we really have to find new ways to talk to people. A lot of people don't want to see advertising at all. I think it's far more difficult now but it's far more interesting.
And now when you think, to reach young people you have to really interest them. You’ve got to get their friends saying 'oh, you need to look at that'. It's not about interrupting. We are really just trying to attract them to what we are producing. And so, it's definitely a challenge but it's a very good challenge.
LBB> And how have conversations with clients changed too?
Valerie> It’s far more open because they are lost - and so are we sometimes! It’s more like a partnership, trying to find a new way. It has to be very collaborative. I think that digital people and the younger people that have been entering advertising have brought that to the industry, definitely. They are far more open about what we could do.
LBB> Just going back to your career. What was your first job in the industry?
Valerie> My first job was at Havas, so it's been like completing the circle because I was at a lot of other places in between. I joined as an account person. And at that time, I felt really, really responsible for everything. And I think that's exactly what I'm trying to do now.
Since that time, we have rationalised, we have professionalised. We thought that we had to work in silos, with lots of different experts and specialists. But we had no people who were able to see the big picture. And that is definitely something that has to change.
LBB> And when you were starting out in your career I was wondering you did you have any mentors or anyone who sort of supported you internally?
Valerie> Not so much. I think it's one of the differences between the American agencies and French agencies.
And so, in the beginning it was like you had fallen in the pool and were and trying to escape from the sharks. And it was interesting because having been 'thrown up' like that, I think it gave me the confidence to know that everything would be OK. If things were awful, I knew at the end I would manage to get through it.
I definitely that young people do have to change agencies in order to see some of the different ways of working.
LBB> Nowadays, how have things changed for young people in France entering the industry for the first time?
Valerie> It's not the golden age anymore, but what is great is that they really can invent their job now. Perhaps it wasn't like that when I began, but for the generation before me - they really were pioneers.
I joined during a really industrial phase. In fact, I think that now that we have to come back we need to be pioneers, and to change our relationship with clients. We’re even changing the format of agencies, undergoing reinvention, which is, I think, great.
LBB> And in terms of the feeling in the industry right now in France, what seems to be the mood on the ground?
Valerie> We know that we have to change. We've known it for many years, but we didn't want to do it - and now we have to do it. If you are doing this kind of job, I think you have to enjoy change and you have to be able to adapt.
LBB> So one area where Havas has been somewhat pioneering is the establishment of its villages, bringing the various agencies within the holding company closer together, physically. You’ve been doing that for some time, but now we’re seeing the other holding companies follow suit. What are your thoughts on this way of working?
Valerie> When I began, I was in with the media people, in the same agency. There were fewer different jobs back then in an agency, and everyone would work together. And so with the ‘Villages’ it's the same, but it's also far more complicated because we have invented lots of new jobs.
You definitely feel it on is the financial side because if you are not on the same page and you have to worry about whether you can work with someone on an account based on whether you have to pay money for their time... it's impossible. So, it is very simple at Havas and there are no issues like that. I can ask every anybody from the group to work on a project I'm working on - then I will have to compensate, of course, but you know it's very simple.
It shouldn’t just work like that on the country level. One of the accounts I'm working on is a small brand but it's a very international one, so I have to ask people from Japan, people from the US to help me on things.
It's so interesting to work like that without being too focused on, 'Oh, that amount of money is here...' It's the only way to do it. We have to be very agile on that, definitely, because it's the only way to cope with our clients' problems.
LBB> Another interesting thing that's going on with Havas is the relationship with Vivendi, these two sides of the business are moving closer... How is that changing things for your teams?
Valerie> That is the new challenge, which is amazing when you think of it. I remember perhaps ten years ago it was really separate. And now it's really open because you know that the government doesn't really have enough money to sponsor everything.
I think that people don't want to see traditional advertising any more, except when it's very, very, very, very good. That's great because raises the bar. But we will also have to invent some other formats and that can be only be done by working with the very different people. It's a new field and Vivendi is really all about that, we are already working with them on content that they are producing and we can get together really early in a project to think about what we can do. There are already people who are really making the bridge. Everything is open. It's happening.
LBB> That division between entertainment and advertising is quite a Western thing – in Japan, companies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo have always straddled both…
Valerie> I remember being very young and going to an exhibition about Japanese posters. And I was amazed by the way they were thinking because it was absolutely not about brand and product. It was like a piece of art sponsored by a company.
I definitely think that it is one of the solutions. Because the government can't pay anymore and people are waiting for brands to engage in something that is really relevant to them or emotionally engaging for them. It means that one of the ways to reach them is to say, "OK you like that kind of subject, you like that kind of area, and the only way to have it and to produce it is to give money to fund it. So, I'm a brand and I will fund it.”
LBB> And what engages you emotionally, outside of work? Is this film still a big passion of yours?
Valerie> Yeah, definitely. But what has happened with TV series is very interesting too. Adults who used to go to the cinema are watching series now. All the insight that you may find in these TV series are really very much about our lives and the way we see the future. I think they it can be braver than traditional cinema.
And bringing it back to my work... I was watching a Danish thriller series recently and the main character was a woman with a very old, khaki-coloured green Porsche. The whole thing is made using that palette of colours - you don't feel it so much in the beginning but it's very beautiful.
She's in love with her car, but it's not too heavy-handed at all. The story is very interesting but very, very dark. And I think it's quite courageous from Porsche to be part of that because it's definitely product placement.
I found it very interesting. It has given me a new view on Porsche. And I think that, really, product placement is not like it was in the James Bond films anymore, where it was a bit ridiculous and not very involving. But here it was very moving and very new and very edgy. I think it has to be really thought about at the beginning of a project, not just added at the end.
LBB> And in terms of the wider economy, it seems that much of Europe is having a tough time, housing costs are outstripping wages. What does that mean for brands?
Valeria> My background is in economics. I could have been an economics teacher. So, what I like to do is to take a big picture view and not get too stuck into the exact client question. One thing that used to annoy me when I used to see the brief was when they would say 'this year we want to achieve a 10 percent growth’. My question would always be, 'do you want to elevate your employee wages by 10%? No? So, it's impossible’.
And the only thing that we can do on our part is to question the brief; always question it very deeply. Very, very, very deeply and try to make them understand that it's not just selling. The question is: what is the big picture? Well when I was working on Danone, I was always saying the main competitor of Danone is Orange, it is the money they are putting on their mobile. It's not Nestle or another brand like that.
I worked on a French chewing gum brand, owned by Mondelez. When I was starting out in advertising, it was a really big brand, like a trademark in France. Everybody wanted to work on that account. And now they can't sell anything because the kids don't care about having chewing gum. They far prefer to buy some music on Spotify, T-shirts, things like that. They don't care about chewing gum anymore, because it has become too mainstream.
Anyway on the economic aspect of that is that the kids have to make some trade-offs about where they spend their money. It's not a question of having an ad which is a bit more interesting than the one before. You have to find something that could put your brand within that community. So, what we tried to do is create a project that allowed kids to earn money by inventing things, because we knew they needed to earn money.
LBB> And aside from economic pressures, what do you think are the main challenges brands are facing right now?
Valerie> Everything is really split. We are going to extremes because of the 'like' and 'dislike'. Because of devolution of the economy there has been no period of time where people are so rich and so poor.
So, it is difficult for brands and for advertising is to be in the middle and to be just average. We can't be average anymore. But at least it pushes us on to be far more brave and courageous and really to affirm what we want to say because it is the only way. I attended a talk that the Burger King marketing director gave in Cannes and they were saying exactly this. They said that there is no point of being just stuck in the middle because nobody will hear you.
What was interesting is that they were saying creativity is not just something which is 'good'. It's the only way to live there anymore. It's the only way to exist now. For them it was not just a nice thing to have. It's really a matter of life and death. I think that we have to consider it like that: just 'being good' is not enough.