Off the back of a successful Cannes Lions, Heineken’s Bram Westenbrink and Publicis Worldwide’s Bruno Bertelli chat to LBB’s Laura Swinton about what makes their creative relationship so fruitful
Heineken is a brand that’s all about socialising, that idea that a beer can bring people together. So there’s a kind of poetry that the brand’s run of creative over the past few years is rooted in one of the tightest relationships in the industry. Between the hardworking teams at Heineken and at Publicis Groupe’s Le Pub, and, on a more personal level, between Heineken’s global head of brand, Bram Westenbrink, and Bruno Bertelli, global CEO of Le Pub and CCO of Publicis Worldwide.
And from strong relationships comes strong work. Over the course of the pandemic, Heineken was one of the most present brands, tapping into the trends for Zoom parties that emerged at the beginning of lockdowns, and supporting the bars and restaurants that had to close when socialising was barred. And that momentum stayed strong, with Heineken emerging at Cannes 2022 as the most awarded individual alcohol brand, as well as placing fourth in the festival’s Brand of the Year ranking, with a tally of two Gold, nine Silver and 10 Bronze Lions awarded across eight Heineken campaigns.
According to Bram, that work quality is the fruit of a long-standing relationship and a deep sense of trust and respect. He says Bruno is respected not just by the marketing team but by the whole company.
“We believe, as a company, in long term relationships. We are there for the long term. Bruno has worked for us for more than 20 years, so he knows some parts of the company better than a lot of Heineken people!” says Bram. “For creativity you need to have an environment with no bureaucracy, not a lot of hierarchy and a lot of safe discussions. If you feel respected then it’s much easier for him to be really clear and really focused.”
And from Bruno’s perspective, this mutual trust allows him and his team to focus on the work rather than second-guessing and playing politics.
“You know when you have this kind of relationship, there’s a big difference,’ says Bruno. “Normally with agencies, the objective of an agency is to please the client to have the campaign approved. In this case, the objective is to be successful. It’s not about the presentation, it’s about actually making sure that the campaign is flying, the sales are going and so on. It’s really shifting the objective and is much more rewarding.”
That relationship was really put to the test with the onset of the covid-19 pandemic. Bram had barely started in his role and was, at that point, working out of Brazil, while Bruno was in Italy. A few months later, in November 2020, Publicis Groupe announced the launch of the Le Pub, a bespoke (and aptly-named) agency dedicated to bringing the Groupe’s diverse capabilities together for Heineken.
In terms of the outward messaging during the pandemic, the team quickly identified a role for Heineken to play – advocating for responsible socialising – and it gave them a focus and forward momentum.
“A lot of brands did nothing or they said, ‘stay at home’ or ‘don’t go out’. But we have been a social network since 1873. We are about socialising and human beings need to socialise. So we said, ‘socialise but do it responsibly’, and that was such a clear and relevant point for the brand. A lot of consumers recognised that, understanding that it meant socialising through digital techniques, but socialising in a safe way. That is something we have done through the whole pandemic, so it gave us a very relevant point of view.”
Now that the world has opened up, Bram is determined to maintain the agility and sharpened sense of topicality fostered during the pandemic.
One of the tools that’s helping them to maintain that momentum and ability to spot and react to new trends and behaviours is their data practice. Housed in Le Pub’s Amsterdam office, the data team watches for signals that might inform how the brand needs to show up next. Bruno explains that a cohort of ‘data translators’ helped bridge the language gap between the number crunchers and creative strategy.
“The most important thing is that we have to keep on understanding what’s going on, checking the data, understanding the insights of consumers,” explains Bram. “We asked ourselves, now that the pandemic is gone, what is the new enemy of socialising? And the data was very clear: it’s work, right? Because of the hybrid way of working, people don’t know how to shut off any more.They keep on working, working, working. And that’s not just in one country or one industry. It’s all over the world. So when we see something like that, we say, ‘hey, this is really relevant.’”
Topicality is key for Bram. So, now that Heineken’s consumers are facing an uncertain economy and cost of living crisis, it’s something that the teams at Heineken and Le Pub are thinking about seriously.
Of course, that topicality comes with a very Heineken lightness of touch. There’s a specific quality to Heineken’s humour and both Bruno and Bram say that getting that tone of voice right is one of the trickiest yet most important elements of the work they do. It all comes back to the quality of the relationship between the two men and their teams and the depth of understanding that comes from it.
“I think tone of voice is a representation of the moment of consumption,” explains Bruno. “And the moment of consumption is not just about watching a match, drinking beer. It’s more about after a day of hard work, sitting with your friends, maybe talking about serious topics but with a lighthearted angle.”
“One of the most important things for the Heineken brand is the tone of voice,” agrees Bram. “It’s not really easy to get and get right. And with the tone of voice we have humour. One of the ways I always try to explain it – because it’s not an easy thing to get – is with Heineken you have to laugh with your brain and not with your belly… It has to provoke some kind of question or surprise in your brain.”
That humour was on full display when Heineken took to the metaverse this year with the launch of Heineken Silver. A virtual launch in Decentraland and a broader campaign that looked, with a quirked eyebrow, at how gaming and social media is shaping how we socialise allowed the team to seriously get to grips with this emerging tech while maintaining a healthy sense of perspective. And it resonated well with their audience who look at the Metaverse conversation with a mix of curiosity, excitement and scepticism. And that approach outperformed Heineken’s expectations.
The pair bounce around topics like the metaverse, data and creativity with the same lighthearted spirit that comes through in the brand work and they’re clearly thinking in sync. But that’s not to say the relationship is one of mindless agreement – indeed both Bram and Bruno are quite open about the need for honesty and space for disagreement. The push, pull and passion is what takes an idea from 80% to 100%.
Looking forward, that relationship looks set to grow. In early June, Heineken and Publicis Groupe announced an expansion of the Le Pub model. Le Pub has already pulled its first pint in São Paulo, and countries like Mexico, South Africa, China and Singapore will soon see dedicated offices. They’re looking not only at parts of the world that are key markets for Heineken, but where, as Bruno explains, ‘creativity resonates’. Being on the ground, immersed in local creative cultures around the world will, the pair hope, keep the relationship between Le Pub and Heineken lively and fresh – and, in the words of the brand’s classic slogan, make sure Heineken keeps refreshing ‘the parts that other beers cannot reach’.