The Vice-Presidente of Publicis Conseil on the secrets of negotiation, her love of ‘positive misfits’ and why France needs to embrace inclusion
Thoughtful and nerdy as a kid, it is unsurprising that Alexandra found her way to agency strategy and planning, though advertising wasn’t initially on her radar. Instead she studied international relations, followed by a masters in negotiation – though they’re fields that have certainly proven useful.
These days she’s a leader, with considerable experience on global brands and a strong view on the importance of generosity in management. Before joining Publicis Conseil a year ago in July 2019, Alexandra was managing director at BETC. Her career has taken her to New York, London and Latin America and she’s spent stints at Y&R and DDB.
And in a year that’s more challenging than most, where agencies have had to contend with Covid-19 and confront the industry’s lack of diversity, Alexandra’s had to dig deep as a leader and draw from all of her personal and professional experience. Together with Publicis Conseil’s co-CEOs Agathe Bousquet and Marco Venturelli, she’s been working hard to balance the safety of staff and the needs of clients. The agency, she reckons, is a survivor – having shut its doors during WW2 and been burned to the ground in the 1970s. Today Publicis Conseil’s ambition is to be the most international and diverse agency in Paris, and as a woman of mixed Colombian, Lebanese and Scottish heritage, the importance of heterogeneity and the experience of being marginalised and labelled as one tries to make one’s mark in the industry are questions that mean a lot to her.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Alexandra to find out more…
LBB> What kind of kid were you and was there any hint that you would end up in advertising?
Alexandra> When I was a kid I wanted to become a poet and a gymnast. I guess this makes a connection with our industry, in which you need to have a sports mentality and a brain that likes to create stories.
When I wasn’t running, exploring around and climbing trees, I was reading and writing. I was a sporty nerd.
LBB> You live in France; your parents were Colombian and Scottish/Lebanese – that’s quite a mix of cultures! What sort of contact did you have with those cultures and how does that informs or inspire you today?
Alexandra> I was lucky to grow up in a household with a mix of cultures. You understand early that people have different sensibilities and that’s perfectly fine. There are definitely more things that unite us than divide us, and we can work from that. Every culture is beautiful in its own right. There is truth in different ways of seeing the world and we can learn from each other.
LBB> How did you first get into the industry? And what drew you to strategy in particular?
Alexandra> When I was a student, I wanted to work in international, multilateral organisations and I was trying to do what I considered to be “serious studies”, in order to be able to do that.
Advertising was not at all on my radar but for some reason, I ended up having an interview with an advertising agency for a trainee position. I vividly remember going out from that interview and googling “what is a Strategic Planning?”
I guess my profile was more interesting for Strategy and in a way the industry chose for me and I was very lucky because, from the minute I started, I knew I had wanted to do that for a long time.
Advertising showed me I could have a serious impact without taking myself too seriously. It was a liberating feeling.
LBB> What lesson do you wish you’d learned earlier on when you were just getting started?
Alexandra> Probably understanding that nobody expects a junior to be an expert. I wanted to prove my value so much that sometimes, I was over-informed. I had to learn to unlearn. To know that sometimes it is what you feel, not what you know, that puts value on the table. If you feel it in your guts, if you can relate to it as a human, then you probably have something interesting to bring.
LBB> Was leadership something you always wanted to take up or was it a responsibility that came to you somewhat organically?
Alexandra> When people are asked about who went to the moon, the first (and often only) name that comes to mind is Armstrong. But I feel more like Michael Collins. Don’t forget that Collins stayed behind to recover Armstrong and Aldrin so that all three could make it back! What matters to me is being part of something special, not being in the spotlight. That’s my kind of leadership. I truly enjoy putting others in the spotlight, because it is what we create together that’s important.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be?
Alexandra> I remember the point in my career when I was told that as a woman, I had to put distance between people and myself in order for them to respect me. I clearly chose that day that I would never do that because that was not me. I believe that if you are not fully and truly putting yourself out there, you are not a leader. Leadership is about being generous, about what you can give.
LBB> You studied negotiation and mediation at Harvard – I can imagine that being incredibly useful! What drew you to that course in the first place and when do you find yourself drawing from it most?
Alexandra> Probably the most precious lesson I learned in negotiation is that nobody wins when only one-party wins. For example, sometimes we try to push work we like, without understanding why our client does not feel comfortable with it. When you can have an open conversation, instead of being obsessed about selling, you build the kind of relationship that creates great work.
LBB> Where are you currently based and how have you found the lockdown experience?
Alexandra> I’m currently based in Paris. The lockdown experience was a complex experience to describe. On the one hand, you lose freedom and on the other, you are doing it for the greatest cause there is: to choose life. I’m thrilled with the fact that despite the consequences, most countries around the world, chose to preserve life first.
LBB> Where is the French industry at when it comes to Covid – are offices and shoots opening back up? Is it still a case of wait and see?
Alexandra> In Paris, the lockdown finished one month ago. There are measures of mutual protection in the streets, shops and business but as days go by, you can feel that people are so excited to get back to social life, that they often forget that we are still exposed and that we could have a second wave anytime.
Publicis Conseil sits at the Publicis Headquarters on the Champs Elysées. We are welcoming half of our talent every week and we have strict hygiene and protection measures. Prioritising those who could be fragile or scared is a great motivator to take care of yourself.
LBB> And what conversations are you having with clients when it comes to navigating the way forward as restrictions continue to ease up?
Alexandra> Most of our clients are integrating different scenarios in their short and mid-term strategies. Some of them have in mind the possibility of a second lockdown. Others plan the future taking into consideration that we could have periods of harder restrictions and periods of relative freedom in the next couple of years to come.
LBB> As a strategist by training and a leader by trade, what have been the most surprising things that you’ve learned from this insane year?
Alexandra> The importance of understanding the past when confronted with the future. Sometimes we are so distracted thinking this is a new and unique moment in history, that we forget to get some clues from how humans have responded to these kinds of situations in the past. In the last few weeks, I have been talking with and listening to historians. I particularly want to fully comprehend the post-Spanish flu world of the ’20s.
LBB> You’ve been at the agency for about a year – what initially appealed to you about joining Publicis and what have been your highlights so far?
Alexandra> The first thing was the immediate connection I felt with Marco Venturelli and Agathe Bousquet. I rarely meet such brilliant yet truly humble personalities in this industry.
Then when I met Arthur, I truly admired his clear vision of the future and I had a great time.
Finally, I was moved and inspired by the Publicis Conseil DNA: I realised it was about guiding one of the most resilient brands out there. The agency was forced to close during World War 2, the building was burned to ashes in the ’70s, and each time the agency got back on its feet, stronger than before. This is the rhetoric of great brands, resilience is the value we need the most to write a better future.
LBB> Publicis Conseil feels like it’s been on an upswing with your appointment and a refreshed creative leadership – and some amazingly creative, particularly with Bee_nfluencer – what’s fuelling that?
Alexandra> I believe you can only write beautiful stories when there is something genuine about it. We are three people at the head of Publicis Conseil, Agathe, Marco and myself. We respect each other, we admire each other, we listen to each other, we have fun together and we share a common vision and common values. That in itself is already a precious and rare gift.
Then if we can change things for the better, it is because the people at Conseil are passionate and committed. You can feel something is happening, you can feel the positive ambition we share.
LBB> And what other recent pieces of work are you particularly excited about?
Alexandra> There is very exciting work is in the works. We are finishing a beautiful campaign on Renault Clio; Orange’s engagement on social responsibility will be more and more visible; we are about to produce a really exciting campaign for Licra (an anti-racism non-profit organisation), among many others. And of course, our little bee becomes bigger and bigger, growing her influence and contributing to saving her friends.
LBB> What are your goals for the agency?
Alexandra> We want Publicis Conseil to become the most international creative agency based in Paris. In order to do that, we are creating an agency rooted in culture, diversity, ethical values and strategic and creative excellence.
On culture, we launched the “Cultural Jam”, a cultural laboratory combining data, strategy and creativity. On diversity, we believe inclusion starts at the top: we are two women and one man, one French and two foreigners, two Europeans and myself, a mixed woman. On ethics: this year the agency was awarded number one agency in the world by the Good Report, for our commitment to Social and Environmental responsibility subjects (thanks to the work and commitment Conseil already had and that we just encouraged, let flourish and expand).
LBB> As well as COVID, the other big discussion internationally in the industry has been the BLM/anti-racism movement and increased demands for action on diversity in the industry. How would you describe the situation in the French industry and are there any specific barriers to change?
Alexandra> I read once that diversity is a fact whereas inclusion is a choice. I truly believe in that.
Paris used to be one of the only places in the world, at the beginning of the 20th century, where mixed couples felt accepted and free. That was a cultural choice. The choice of a city that was leading and shaping the culture around the world. I believe as France became less of a lighthouse of inclusion, the French culture became less influential in the world.
Global culture is not created by a specific demographic. In an interconnected world, culture is naturally plural, diverse and mixed. An agency that does not choose inclusion is an agency that is disconnected from the culture and therefore is disconnected from people. These days, for advertising agencies, the choice of diversity is a matter of survival.
LBB> And what about Publicis Conseil specifically, how has the agency responded?
Alexandra> I feel legitimate to speak up and act on inclusion because I had to deal with labels all along the way. That does not mean I can speak for everyone, but I can deeply relate to situations diverse talents live every day. You will be well aware of the global initiatives we have implemented at Publicis Groupe. Specifically in France, for Publicis Conseil we decided with Agathe and Marco on two main inclusion initiatives that I’m leading at the agency. First, I worked with a group of strategists from diverse origins to propose a specific initiative on how to source more diverse talent around the world. We are working on the deployment of that program right now and we are launching it before the end of the year. Second, we created a diversity board at Publicis Conseil in which we are setting the agenda for the years to come.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing? What do you do to refresh and refuel yourself?
Alexandra> Nothing original, just the essential to be joyful and balanced. Dancing, changing the world around a table with some friends, sharing time with my partner and my son and being the closest to nature I can be.
LBB> What figures, thinkers, creators (within the industry or beyond it!) do you find particularly interesting or inspiring?
Alexandra> I’m naturally attracted by positive misfits. I think a figure like Jacinda Ardern is not only important to women, and she is but is also a necessary role model in a world in which people are more and more uncomfortable with governments and old political leaders. I always admired Henry Ford for having the courage to elevate the minimum wage for his employees up to five times which was a visionary move to create the necessary wealth for the automotive industry to move forward. In our industry, I truly admire Agathe Bousquet. A leader who comes from non-profit organisations and leads to human values and honesty. With Marco, every day we recognise what an opportunity and an honour it is to work with her.