Nikita Mishra
Aug 29, 2023

Yannick Bolloré on AI, tech and creativity quests after a decade as Havas CEO

EXCLUSIVE: As generative AI's potential assumes extinction-level threats for industries, Bolloré chats with Campaign Asia-Pacific about 'doubling down on human creativity' and their Asia plans ahead of his tenth anniversary as leader.

Yannick Bolloré on AI, tech and creativity quests after a decade as Havas CEO

It’s been a decade since Yannick Bolloré became the global chief executive of the Paris-based Havas advertising group, the world’s sixth largest advertising company by revenue. The youngest of the ad holding company CEOs, Bolloré took over the reins of Havas ten years ago on August 31, 2013. Speaking with Campaign from the agency’s Paris headquarters in crisp formals, he far exceeds the dress requirements for an early morning Teams interview.

“I am not at all worried about the future of human creativity,” he announces as we begin the talk on the flurry, if not blizzard, of new developments in generative AI and the existential threat surrounding advertising. “The more the landscape gets fragmented, it gets harder to reach people’s attention, the more there will be a need for better and stronger creative,” he says.

Doom-mongering is nothing new for Bolloré. In his tenure as CEO, he’s encountered several 'deaths', including "the death of print" and "the death of TV", he explains. In fact, every new format signals an impending apocalypse. But generative AI is a different beast. The Cambrian-like explosion of possibilities in its applications sound like both a boon and boogeymen, depending on who you ask.

For advertising, gen AI has a special pertinence. Not only has it seismically shifted the way we look at content creation, but is simultaneously deployed by agencies to reduce cost—in time, money and effort—potentially allowing a three-hour job to be knocked out in minutes with AI assistance. WPP and largescale corporations like Unilever look to generative AI to cut marketing costs while making more ads. WPP’s CEO Mark Read has often said AI is “fundamental” to its business. Recently, he told Reuters that savings from generative AI can be “10 to 20 times.”

This year at Cannes, where everyone from the top to the bottom of the totem pole was hung up on AI, holding companies were scrambling to show how they had the front row tickets to the gen AI wave. Jensen Huang, the co-founder of the $1 trillion chipmaker Nvidia, spoke about an ad industry revolution powered by generative AI. “You will create AI factories where the input is creativity, and the output is content. You will generate billions of ads… one person at a time,” he told a stunned audience of marketers.

Like any other agency head, Bolloré is keyed into the applications and potential of gen AI calling it a “revolution” but isn’t quite sold on this happy talk. 

“In the early 1800s, people used to get their portraits painted. When photography was invented, it was thought that it would kill painters; but photography did not kill the artists, it killed the average painter and allowed the rest to find new ways to express their creativity,” he says.

The ‘aha’ artistic moment referenced here allowed painters in the 1820s to see their creativity in a new light. It was the end of the landscape painting era but the invention (of photography) gave way to the rise of Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Modernism and more.

“Even though generative AI is revolutionary, it is not going to kill creators,” he continues, “Perhaps the average creator, but not the best. It is going to be survival of the fittest.”  

And that is already quite evident. A Forrester report forecasts that in US alone, agencies will replace 7.5% of jobs with AI automation tools by 2030, Group M says that AI is likely to be involved with at least half of all advertising revenue by the end of 2023. Holding companies like WPP, Publicis and Omnicom have recently made moves in the space, but Bolloré is not feeding into the hype or the fright, just yet.

Bullish on the future of creativity because gen AI “is absolutely not a replacement for the human creative,” he bills the acquisition of one of the largest indie shops Uncommon Creative Studio in the UK as proof that creativity is central to its offering. Uncommon has plans to grow in New York and Asian expansion is not off the cards, he reveals.

At a time when most of agency holding groups are swaying away from creative acquisitions to focus on data, technology and influencer marketing businesses, some would say the Havas boss is swimming against the tide.

Havas acquired 51% of marketing agency Uncommon in an all-cash deal in July, 2023. From left to right, Yannick Bolloré, chairman and chief executive of Havas; Uncommon co-founders Natalie Graeme, Lucy Jameson and Nils Leonard; and Donna Murphy, global CEO of Havas Creative and Havas Health & You Photo: John Millar
“My vision has always been that tech should be a means to the end and not the end in itself. Everyone should be using new tech. At Havas, we hired some prompt writers and are training all our 22,000 staff on the basics of generative AI. But we are using it as a tool or an assistant to make us better,” he says.

“Tech is the facilitator and the enabler of creativity. The future belongs to agencies with the best creatives and best planners,” Bolloré adds.

In line with that long-term vision, Havas continued its creative agency acquisition spree throughout Covid. Its last was one of Singapore’s hottest indie agencies BLKJ in Feb 2021, it added nine companies to its kitty in 2022, already three in 2023, including PivotRoots in India and HRZN, a German social media and content creation agency.

Is the larger strategy here to counter the marketer’s massive craze in generative AI?

“Well, I am reminded of a quote here: ‘The optimists have invented the plane, the pessimists have invented the parachute.’ We need both in the world,” he says.

Which side are you on, Campaign asks.

“The optimists’,” he responds.

The Asia story

Doubling down on creativity has borne good results for the holding company. Less than a month ago, it posted strong Q2 with organic growth in net revenues accelerating to 6.3% from 1.9% in Q1. Bolloré attributes this strong performance to its Health & You and media divisions. Geographically, all regions report solid organic performances.

In the second quarter, business was stronger in Asia-Pacific (7.6%), than North America (5.5%) or Europe (3.4%).  Part of the growth story for Havas was an "aggressive external growth policy" with recent acquisitions of independent Australian health communications agency Bastion Brands, acquisition of social, digital agency Front Networks to strengthen its business in China, and rollout of new offerings like Havas Market in Australia, Havas Play globally, and Cake, a creative agency in India.

“Clearly, the 21st century will be the century of Asia. It’s the fastest-changing region, that’s why we are investing so much over here,” he adds.

By 2040 APAC is predicted to top 50% of the world’s GDP and drive 40% of global consumption. No surprise, that the Havas boss is bullish on the region. They’ve seen individual market successes with India [23.4% growth in Q2-2023], China [15.2%] and Singapore [10.3%]. India has been a big success story for the group under CEO Rana Barua. Havas had three verticals and a team of 200 in India till 2018. Since then, it has expanded to 12 agencies and a team of more than 1,200 people.  

“India and China have both been big successes. This region was the first to suffer during the difficult Covid years and in a way, we were able to apply the learnings from here in our other offices to ensure a seamless business continuity,” Bolloré said.

Singapore also remains to be a regional priority, stresses Bolloré. Yet, there are no plans of resurrecting the regional leadership that was struck down in 2021.

Going forward, Bolloré predicts a cheery economic outlook for the rest of the year. Even though advanced economies have still not entirely vanquished inflation and might need to implement more rate rises, there is no room for concerns about a fractured economic outlook in his playbook.

“When we entered 2023, like everyone else I thought it would be a very difficult year. But we posted solid results for Q2. Honestly, I don't see any economic slowdown coming for the advertising industry in the second half of the year. In my opinion, it will look more or less the same as the first half with the possibility of strong growth,” he predicts.

Looking back at the decade, he reminisces on the radical changes the group has withstood.

“We are stronger, more integrated, more agile and more efficient than we were ten years ago. We’ve had so many crises, Covid wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, but each terrible period becomes an accelerator of change and opportunity. In fact, we are completely different than we were when I took charge of the group. It’s like day and night,” he adds.

Havas' new logo on its corporate headquarters in Puteaux, France on June 13. Photo: Joel Pagal

No tech crutches

We go back to the discussion on creativity and AI’s rapid influence on the industry. Absolutely no one at this point can predict how this will all play out.

Bolloré nods in agreement.

Bolloré at Cannes 2023. Photo. Johnny Millar Photography

Take the stock market’s current darling, Nvidia, the graphics chip-maker, for example. It’s now the fifth-largest U.S. company by market value and reaping the benefits of its relentless focus on AI in spades. The hype and the excitement around AI have led the company’s stocks nearly tripling its value this year at a market value of more the $1 trillion. To give context, Nvidia is one of the only five companies to have reached this milestone—along with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google’s parent, Alphabet—it is the only one that isn’t a household name.

Nvidia stocks rally after the August 25 earnings call

The world is in the blast phase on AI, the inexorable demand that has whipped businesses into  hysteria, but it’s all rooted in the nascency of the rapidly expanding AI programs like ChatGPT. What if the hype does not meet the promise of revolution? Emad Mostaque, the CEO of Stability AI (the firm behind Stable Diffusion, a popular gen AI tool) declared at the Bloomberg Tech Summit in San Francisco last month that “AI is the biggest bubble of all time.”

“I call it the ‘dot AI’ bubble, and it hasn’t even started yet,” he said.

It’s not all pure speculation. Remember earlier this year in February, Google’s share tumbled 8% in a single day, parent Alphabet lost nearly $100 billion in market value, after Bard, its AI chatbot gave an inaccurate answer in a promotional video upon its release.  

The hype cycle is reminiscent of the last (minor) tech bubble to pop,—the metaverse. Despite investing more than $100 billion on metaverse R&D, Meta no longer even pitches the metaverse to potential advertisers.

Just as AI was dominating headlines at Cannes this year, the ad world (and investors alike) were salivating over metaverse in 2022. This year, there was nary a mention of the ‘m’ word. Trend forecasters were left with an egg on their faces.

Generative AI, no doubt, has brilliant creative applications in advertising. So, the important question to ask is, does creativity always need the support of the next shiny thing; has marketing swung its pendulum so far that it has no standalone future without the crutches of technology?

“Anything is better with creativity and technology is an enabler for you to achieve things that maybe you were not able to achieve before,” Bolloré quips.

Cautious of the AI hangover, the Havas boss is not betting on ChatGPT and its ilk to already widen our creative aperture and help brands with magically engaging outcomes.

“We’ve created campaigns with ChatGPT, Dall-E and MidJourney, I’ve tried it myself, it’s not bad. But it’s not standout. In future, if everyone is using the same gen AI tools and creating content, it will all look the same,” he adds.

Somewhat like fishing from the same pond of past campaigns?

“Yes, absolutely. A sea of sameness where brands will face the issue of differentiation.”

“Without the finest human creativity, we cannot achieve the caliber of work needed to make an impact and an emotional connection that brands wish to make.”

“One day when generative AI produces better campaigns than us, it will be a problem but today it cannot come up with that genius idea. It can speed up the process to get to that idea, but it cannot match the genius of a human creative.”

McCann Worldgroup recently used digital mapping and AI amplification to make 42,000 individual signs and menus for the 8,400 owners of Mexican hot dogs and hamburgers stands for its client Bimbo. Wunderman Thompson played with AI for a cheeky KitKat commercial that had our in-house reviewer Ad Nut’s cynicism meter run high. But without feelings or soul, the voice in the work created by generative AI is not persuasive enough. The result, however, is undoubtedly cheaper and faster.

Somehow David Abbott’s famous quote comes to mind. “Shit delivered at the speed of light, is still shit,”—at this point, it’s only half funny.

Campaign Asia

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