The past year has been an interesting one for agency mergers across the global ad industry, with many of them characterised by classical creative agencies colliding with younger, more digital-focused shops. WPP has been one of the key forces driving this shift and the holding company’s combination of Y&R - a heritage brand - with VML - who built a reputation on social media and digital expertise - is one of the starkest examples.
In France it was particularly stark. Young & Rubicam has a proud history in Paris. Known affectionately as ‘La Young’, for many years the agency has been the custodian of beloved French brands like Danone, Volvic and Boursin.
Meanwhile, there was no VML in France at all. So the past year has seen a brand new agency being gradually pieced together and taking on a new form. In April Cécile Lejeune joined as CEO and in June Dimitri Guerassimov was appointed as CEO/CCO.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with the agency’s new leaders to find out what sort of agency they intend to build on the foundations of La Young as they look to the future.
LBB> VML and Y&R merged around a year ago now, but both of you joined the agency this year. How would you characterise how the new agency is defining itself?
Cécile> For both of us VMLY&R Paris is a new agency. The new identity draws on the DNA of Y&R, which is around building brands, changing brand perception and planning. Y&R in France was historically really good on that and has built probably the biggest and most beautiful brands in France, like Danone, Decathlon and Orangina.
Of course, what’s important is keeping that DNA and know how and applying it to what a brand is nowadays - a brand which is connected to people’s lives. That’s why the new positioning of VMLY&R is that we “create connected brands”. And how we do it is we bring new capabilities.
LBB> What are the capabilities specific to your agency?
Cécile> The first is data because if you want to connect brands with people’s lives you need to have insight, you need to have a way of processing data that allows you to plug it into better brands and human feelings, human attitudes to life. In September we are going to launch the EVE Data-Platform. We will plug in brand data that we extract using the BAV [BrandAsset Valuator] and social listening.
When you go through this data, what is interesting is you start to have great insights into points of connection. It’s a new, planning-focused way to use data. You don’t connect a brand to people’s lives without that.
A grand exercise that we are developing is social media and influence. It is key if you want to connect a brand to people’s lives. You can’t do it without social media and influencers. And this is in the DNA of VML.
VML is probably the most successful social media agency. The way they do it is new and interesting. We’re putting that in place in Paris. Through data and social media as a start, and after that we will go further.
Dimitri> This is a precise explanation of all the technical points, but also the difference of what VML brings reminds us of what they did on Wendy’s, which won a Grand Prix in Cannes this year. It’s a way to enter the conversation in an absolutely seamless way. In a way that was not done before.
It’s not displaying an ad in a social space. It’s about participating in the activity that people are doing on social media. They went on Twitch and were a part of the story, not a side dish or a clever way to place an ad somewhere. They were doing the same activity. People had fun with it. It didn’t feel like advertising because it wasn’t done like advertising.
The biggest contender in this category was Nike Kaepernick. Wendy’s won against Nike. When Nike says something like a statement, Wendy’s is in contact with people. It’s part of the experience, not a statement. So this is the kind of DNA that the VML part is adding into VMLY&R’s mix.
LBB> What other principles are you using to define VMLY&R Paris?
Cécile> The mix of brand on one side and being in people’s lives on the other side - you have some great connected brands. But we also have key words.
The first one is culture. That’s new for everyone. We have one real motto in the way we work, in our brief, which is the world culture. The culture is the key point to start to have a good idea, to make or connect a brand with people’s lives.
Wendy’s is a good example of the cultural fit. They took something from the culture which was Fortnite and they used it in a simple and powerful creative way.
LBB> Y&R Paris is famous for its strategic heritage - in this new era what part of that remains the same and what has to change?
Cécile> The new key point is the cultural fit. The second one is the way we build brands. Before, when we were building a brand it was a pyramid or it was a house. And you would use words like ‘mission’. It was closed. Nobody could touch it.
We totally believe that nowadays the way you should build brands is like a person. We should consider a brand like a person. Meaning a brand has a personality, it has a role in life, but it can change everyday and also when you talk to different people. I am not the same when I talk to you or to Dim and when I am with my husband and my kids in the evening. I am the same person with the same personality and role in life, but the way I express myself is completely different. Even the way I express myself on Twitter isn’t the way I do it on Facebook or Instagram. I think the way we see brands should be like that.
A brand can have a different way to express itself when it talks to different people on different social media. That is important for brands to understand. They have the impression that this will destroy their brand. It is totally the opposite.
Even more, if you consider a brand as a person, you can understand that a brand can innovate, it can move. It means you should allow people to play with a brand.
What has changed in the way we build brands is we should consider a brand like a person and allow a brand to talk differently, dress differently sometimes, but stay the same brand with a core personality and a core role in life.
If you have both, you can create connected brands.
And after that you need the cultural fit and the big idea to do it.
Dimitri> It’s a bit like in life. If you are uptight you will have fewer connections with people than if you are more open and friendly. You feel the will of the person to connect. This is something that we believe in.
On the example of Wendy’s that’s how it felt very native. It reinvented what native is. It really felt part of the game and not somebody pretending or trying to join the conversation in the wrong way.
LBB> That’s a lot about the new side of things. But what is it about the heritage of Y&R that you want to maintain?
Cécile> We have the chance to have very strong grand planning. We have at the agency people who understand how you build a brand, even in the new way. They always change their way of building brands and it’s great. What we really want to keep is that.
Also we work with brands for a long time, like Danone, Colgate. I think it’s also a strength that we want to keep. You don’t build a brand in six months. You build a brand over time. It’s not project by project but longer aims.
Because we create in the long term, our relationship with a client is always in partnership. We do it with them. Never against them or without them. We love to workshop with clients. We put the clients in in our kitchen. We always set out to work together. Because we believe that you do it in the long run, the only way to do it is together.
LBB> I wanted to ask about new business. Obviously there are brands that you want to continue these long relationships with, but also it must be helpful to win new accounts to test the new model on, from the ground up. Do you have dream clients or dream kinds of work you’d like to do?
Cécile> I’m not sure we have dream clients because I think the most interesting is to take the client which doesn’t sound sexy and make it sexy. Dimitri had done probably one of the best examples in France with the ugly vegetables from Intermarche. That was a totally non-sexy client. Nobody wanted to work with them. It’s more interesting to do that.
Of course we want to win new business, more because we would like to diversify the agency. We have lots of food and FMCG clients, which are great because they are very international and we know how it works. We have Volvo as a car brand, but we would like go into different sectors. We recently won Geodis [the logistics company] worldwide. That is very interesting for us because the category is very different and it’s also a new brand that we have to establish. We couldn’t say we dream about it but we are pleased to have won it.
Dimitri> It’s exciting to be at the start and to help build something. Rather than thinking there’s a super sexy client you just keep on doing work that was started by someone else. It’s exciting to be there at the birth of a brand image and explore this with them in a partnership. You don’t state it in a rigid way.
LBB> VMLY&R is a fairly new network still. How, as an agency specifically in Paris, do you differ from the rest of the network? Is there a specialism that marks you out?
Cécile> First of all, even if it’s a very new network, strangely, it already feels like a family. I can say that because I am new to VMLY&R and I feel part of it. We work together a lot, Dim has already started to share creative with other agencies in the network in London, Italy, Russia as well. We really are a family.
I think even if we have a family and we share the same theories, the same culture and values, we also are very different. If I take, for example, Poland - who won the Grand Prix in Cannes this year with The Last Ever Issue for Twój Weekend magazine - is very focused on tech and eCommerc. They have more than 300 developers. That’s their expertise. London has started to really develop key customer experience expertise with digital services. Other cities are specialising in social media. And weare more data, building a platform that everyone in the network is interested in and wants to use.
We all share the same culture, values, ambitions and passions for creativity. But we do it each in a different way and we share that.
Dimitri> I just joined but that’s something that I started doing from the beginning. It’s a culture in which you’re free to explore, be a bit different, try things. It’s not stuck at all. It doesn’t feel like the image you have of some networks, because everybody is open to test. This is the heritage of digital and social - the test and learn thing that you have. You can roll out something and then kill it or upgrade it. It doesn’t feel classical.
LBB> It’s interesting how there was no VML in France before, a lot of what you’re saying sounds like the influence of VML’s culture.
Cécile> The name of Y&R in France is “La Young” and it’s still a beautiful brand. When you tell people you work at La Young people still have a good image of it. It’s just sleeping. But it’s not bad. La Young has a great, creative brand image.
Dimitri> It’s a sleeping beauty. I think VML is bringing a lot of excitement and substances to wake it up.