Atifa Silk
Aug 30, 2017

Exclusive interview: Yannick Bolloré

THE ATIFA SILK INTERVIEW: Havas Group’s CEO says its high-profile restructuring gives it greater flexibility, and argues technology must power creativity—not the other way around.

Creative concerns: Bolloré believes the challenge for agencies today is to create meaning and help brands to “deliver something that people care about”.
Creative concerns: Bolloré believes the challenge for agencies today is to create meaning and help brands to “deliver something that people care about”.

As Havas Group continues to extend its ‘Together’ strategy globally, accelerating its integration, breaking down silos and moving to a client-centric and region-based organisation, Yannick Bolloré: reflects on its progress and future in Asia. Earlier this year, his group’s two divisions, Havas Creative Group and Havas Media Group, ceased to exist and evolved into a single unit with one P&L alongside its healthcare and wellness business, with Mike Amour leading the group in Asia-Pacific.

Soon after, Vivendi signed on the dotted line to acquire the roughly 60-percent majority stake Bolloré Groupe holds in Havas for US$2.5 billion. Havas and Vivendi were already connected, of course, through the Bolloré family and shareholdings. Havas chief executive Yannick Bolloré: is the son of Vincent Bolloré, the chairman and dominant shareholder of Vivendi. The new entity, it is hoped, will bring a unique proposition to clients, with the potential to extend its reach into Asia.

Atifa Silk: What’s the next step on Havas’s transformation journey?

Yannick Bolloré: We have been on this huge transformation journey for the last four years. We put all the agencies back together to try and create a very collaborative group, taking a holistic approach from a client standpoint. This is what we call the ‘Together’ approach or strategy. Over the last three years, this has led to growth in the company.

But our clients’ expectations are evolving; they are much more demanding in terms of how we leverage the new data opportunities to be even more creative, how we reach our investment of the campaign. Certainly, our clients are more demanding in terms of quality of the commissioning of work. They want to have the best work: not just reach, but sharing with social media that creates engagement with their brand. And at the same time they want to devour and use the new digital tools in the way they communicate.

This has forced us to be more forward thinking and to spend more time with new types of partners such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, and try to see what can be achieved from both the creative and technological standpoints. It’s critical that we manage to be successful in our combination of creativity and technology, and we must do that without losing the focus on creativity. In my view, creativity is even more essential than technology. In fact, it’s the key. So our challenge is more about how technology can power creativity, not the other way around.

Atifa Silk: Is the structural transformation now complete?

Yannick Bolloré: The transformation is done from an infrastructure standpoint. I can tell you that all the silos have been broken down and everybody is working together. We have a regional organisation in place as part of our strategy to drastically change the way we are structured. We have moved away from divisions and silos to a client-centric approach. That’s really been the key to making this transformation a reality. It has been very hard. It’s a significant change; we had to move all of our people into new buildings so they would be sitting together. We had to change CEOs and back office processes. I mean, honestly, it has been very complex, very complicated. But we have enjoyed the journey because we knew that we were creating something that was meaningful to clients. The outcome is that we have the tools, processes and structures in place and everyone is just working for clients. You take your client on that journey so he has access to every resource. It’s not like before when you needed to be in a division to provide a specific solution or work on a specific client. Now, you just work in the client’s best interest. When I meet with a client I just talk about his communication, not simply one assignment.

Am I satisfied? Yes and no. Yes, I’m satisfied because we worked very hard, the results are visible, the brands are happy, the clients are happy, and generally everybody is very satisfied. But we can’t stop reinventing ourselves. Change has to be a continuation. It’s good to look back because it’s important to know where you have come from and where your roots are, but it’s also good to project yourself into the future.

Atifa Silk: Will the Vivendi deal extend its offering deeper into Asia? What is your growth and acquisition strategy to scale Havas in Asia?

Yannick Bolloré: Yes, I think so. Asia is a key area of development. Vivendi’s Universal Media Group has signed a big deal with Tencent for their international expansion and are working with other giants in Asia. So we will be considering investing in China and in Asia. APAC is one region of the world where we have more opportunities to grow because we are still a little bit behind in terms of market share. We have very attractive offerings for talent with our strategy. We are, by nature, a decentralised organisation. We believe in empowering people and giving them equity, and we see ourselves as well matched with Asian culture. It is a compelling and powerful partnership for people to know that they can be empowered to make decisions and thrive in this type of entrepreneurship environment. Havas will be investing more in Asia in the coming years.

Professional CV
  • 2013 Chairman and CEO, Havas
  • 2006 CEO, Bolloré Media
  • 2001 Co-founder, WY productions

We still have a lot of ideas about what’s next. We have closed a deal with GIMC in China, which is very important for us. GIMC is one of the leading groups in communications in the world, with 4,500 people, and one of the leaders in the Chinese market. It’s going to be a big step forward for us to partner with them. [The Havas Group now owns 51 percent of Havas GIMC Advertising, which operates as an integrated media and creative agency headquartered in Shanghai.]

We have just closed an acquisition deal for a company called Sorento [an India-based health and wellness agency] and are looking at other acquisitions in India, which is a key area given its huge demographic that obviously will continue to grow significantly over the coming decades. We have also ambitions in South Korea for specific, targeted acquisitions. In particular, healthcare is a sector of interest, as AI is really changing the way we can treat ourselves from a Western viewpoint, and communication groups are clearly an agent of digital transformation for healthcare professionals.

Atifa Silk: How are you preparing Havas for a future in AI?

Yannick Bolloré: We are hiring engineers, mathematicians, data scientists, people who have been awarded with the Fields Medal, which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in science for maths. These people are now working for us and we hope they can empower our staff with the best tools. I don’t believe tools will ever replace people. Sorry, I know people love the idea of man being replaced by machines but I don’t believe that
will happen.

What our clients want at the end of the day is to drive more sales and to gain market share. As their communications agency and partner, our job is to use communication to drive more sales. So it’s to create more awareness for their brand, and to create more meaningfulness for their brand. That’s what we are here to do and we should not misunderstand or confuse our purpose. The question in the minds of many clients today is about making sure they have the right partner to leverage all those new opportunities. When we look at AI, clients want to ask how it can help them be more successful as a business.

Atifa Silk: What is the role of creativity in the world of AI?

Yannick Bolloré: We should find another word to describe this, because artificial intelligence or machine-learning is not actually ‘intelligent’. It is in fact a processor or a computer that can process huge amounts of data in a very short period of time. It can help smart people to be even smarter. It can help creative people to think about new things, but a machine can’t be creative. The greatest work that we see around us is brilliant because it has a creative mastermind behind it. That is powerful. I don’t believe that AI by itself will generate a campaign that’s as accurate and full of meaning. The question is how these machine tools can make smart people even smarter and bright people even brighter. You have to understand that AI is for the brain, and the machines have to work behind the scenes to make you more powerful and the brain to be stronger. It’s a tool. It doesn’t do things by itself.

Atifa Silk: What’s keeping your clients up at night?

Yannick Bolloré: The problem in the world today is that there are many brands that are not necessarily meaningful to people. The Havas Meaningful Brands research report is frightening. It shows that people don’t care if 74 percent of brands disappear. It’s a problem. Three-quarters of the brands around us could disappear and nobody would care. It is something that marketers and agencies need to worry about. The question for marketers and CEOs of client companies is how they become a meaningful brand for consumers and deliver something that people care about. This is where creative agencies can make a difference by helping to bring equity to the brand. Then you ask the media people to address the brand in a meaningful way, in a way that doesn’t create a negative or bad user experience or environment, or an issue around brand safety, as all of these topics are very important.

Atifa Silk: How are you tackling the issue of brand safety?

Yannick Bolloré: The media people in our industry have a very important role today to make sure that they raise the message in a meaningful way, on meaningful platforms. And that is why we need to make sure that our programmatic tools and advertisers have safe environments and are not jeopardising the user experience, but enhancing it in the interest of people. I hate it when one of my clients is doing pop-up ads; frankly, that is just pissing off people on the web. But all of that is becoming increasingly complex. It’s very important for clients to externalise their communication, which is why they are relying on people like us more and more to come up with new communication ideas and solutions.

And that is why the role of agencies is more important today than it used to be in the past. The more complex our world gets and continues to get, the more critical it is for us to make sure we bring the right level of service to clients. It’s this holistic approach, where we do everything from A to Z.

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