Creative Correspondence: Stéphane Xiberras & Mélanie Pennec
Old pals Stéphane Xiberras and Mélanie Pennec discuss boring 'feel good ads', the joys of lurking on social media and how they'd set up an agency from scratch in the latest of our 30th birthday celebration features.
For this Creative Correspondence - our ongoing 30th birthday feature in which we ask prominent members of the creative advertising industry to converse with a person of their choosing - we have a Parisian creative overload.
When President & Chief Creative Officer BETC France and Head of Havas Global Creative Council Stéphane Xiberras was asked who he'd like to digitally pen-pal with, the answer was instant - DDB Paris Creative Director Mélanie Pennec.
Having known each other since 2006, when Pennec was on internship at BETC and received an email from his assistant telling her: ‘Congrats! Xibé [Xiberras' friendly nickname] liked your idea, you have a Plan’s board with him!!’, the duo clearly have a warm relationship that comes through in this delightful chat covering agency's responses to the pandemic, structure within a massive company, and whether the dosage of meds we're taking is strong enough.
MP: Temperatures today will be 10 degrees above what they should be. We’re all still half working from home, and when we do go out, all we can see is people wearing masks that are the most horrible blue in the history of blue things. We hear talk of another lockdown, newly approved but ultimately not very reliable saliva tests, “easing of restrictions” and layoffs left, right and centre. Everything is peachy.
But since you aren’t my therapist, I will try to turn this pessimism into a more “professional” question: what is your take on our current situation, and what should agencies do? Should we become clowns to make people forget all this anxiety-provoking news? Should commercial breaks after the news become a bit of fun and escapism? Or is pretending everything is normal (when nothing really is) bad taste? Does this mean making totally boring “feel good” ads?
SX: I agree that the social, economic and political context makes us wonder about our industry’s role, its objective, its relevance and even its usefulness. If your question is, “this is a difficult time, should we pretend nothing has happened?”, I honestly think the answer is no, absolutely not. Does this inevitably lead us to create consensual bullshit? The answer, again, can only be no.
Should we become clowns to make people forget all this anxiety-provoking news?
A guy who worked in your agency a few years ago, Bill Bernbach (I’m going to stop you right there. I can see your grin, yes, I am slightly older than you, but no I did not know him). Bill said “all of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level”.
There are many, almost infinite ways to do this, as long as they are designed with great respect for the audience. This brings me to a really important question for you Melanie: are you absolutely sure you’re on the right dose of meds?
Above: William "Bill" Bernbach, co-founder of DDB and definitely around before Stéphane Xiberras' time.
MP: Thanks for asking Stéphane. You’re right: combining Prozac and Valium is much more effective than Lexomil. Today is going really great: I hear it's going to rain all week and the sky is dark and grey.
On the other matter, yes, we definitely have lots to learn from our elders. I don't know if your friend Bill said that, though it is very likely that Brigitte Bourguignon did.
I bet you’re reading that name and drawing a blank, right? Well, for your information Brigitte Bourguignon is our Minister of Autonomy (and no, not of cooking). I was googling (while waiting for a conference call) and came across some particularly interesting information (compared to the conf call): our new government has 42 Ministers and Secretaries of State, compared with 15 in the United States or in Germany.
The organisation of an agency of 1200 people is always quite tricky.
I will spare you the "where do our taxes go?" question. I do see an interesting parallel however with that huge ship you run. BETC is massive, and there seems to be loads of General Managers, Vice Presidents, Deputy Mangers etc. So, I have three questions; you just have to choose:
- Do you have someone in charge of communication for the elderly? Is that on the cards?
- Don't you think your company has too many bosses?
- Like their government, does Havas Germany have half as many GMs as BETC?
SX: The organisation of an agency of 1200 people is always quite tricky. Our way (which is worth whatever it’s worth) is to create mini structures within the big one. Each unit is managed by an Executive Creative Director and a Business Partner. They are completely in charge of their hub. Now, imagine that there are dozens of these partnerships across the agency. Then you add the transversal services that support them (production, legal, human resources etc…). All these lovely people report to a Management Board, made up of Mercedes, Bertille, Remi, Cyril (the financial director) and me. The Management Board is responsible for major business strategy. The hubs I mentioned above are for day to day operations.
It sounds really boring when said like that, but it is way more so in reality.
Setting up an agency means you believe that there is an opening in the market, and that you are the right person to fill that space. I don’t think now is the right time in any case.
I often think that we reached a real milestone when we went over 600 people, and I wonder what kind of organisation I would go for if I had to set up an agency from scratch.
That my dear Mélanie, is my next question for you.
MP: If I had to set up an agency, dear Stéphane, I would be in deep shit.
Firstly, because I am a bourgeoise who loves the comfort of big agencies. I’ve been lucky to work in companies of many different sizes, and yeah, we get to work on pitches with a very high level of comfort. Sometimes there are 24 people in a meeting and it's horrendous, but that means you have people and things around you who know how to do everything, a sound studio, laser printers, someone who organised the paper for the printer in advance and another ready to repair it if it crashes in the middle of the night.
That definitely doesn’t happen everywhere and believe me, it changes lives… I’m an old fogey, I know, I certainly wouldn't have become a billionaire in a garage...
I have no problem saying what I think about our industry. As for everything else, I don’t feel I can legitimately comment on cultural or political subjects.
Secondly, because I don't really know if there is any need. Setting up an agency means you believe that there is an opening in the market, and that you are the right person to fill that space. I don’t think now is the right time in any case.
The last but most important problem is the name. I generally find agency names are terrible. But since you have four children, I suppose you've had bigger life challenges. And by the way Stéphane, what has been your biggest professional challenge? Nah, just kidding. Why aren’t you on social networks?
SX: Contrary to popular belief, I am actually on social networks. Or rather, I "follow" social networks, but as a spectator, if you will. I am hidden, in the shadows...
What I don't do is express my opinion. I have no problem saying what I think about our industry. As for everything else, I don’t feel I can legitimately comment on cultural or political subjects. Also, I don’t suffer from any personality cult, which means I don’t fall into the trap of some of our colleagues who speak at length about how our industry is horrible, how we only produce crap, who can’t wait to denounce that X idea has already been done etc...
We are responsible for what we produce; if it’s not good, well then, we’re not that good.
I don't like the schizophrenic side (quite French I think) of people working in a profession, making a living from it and at the same time telling us how mediocre this industry is and that, in fact, they have stayed “pure” at heart.
We are responsible for what we produce; if it’s not good, well then, we’re not that good. I totally understand not being comfortable with the idea of promoting products by using systems to influence people. In that case, you really shouldn’t do this job. There are so many cool things to do; much cooler than keeping your mouth shut in a meeting with a knot in your stomach, thinking about paying off your country house and putting on a vigilante costume at night to vent about everyone else.
As you can probably tell, it really annoys me, and at the same time I pity them, because for me this job is one of the best jobs in the world.