Advertising legend Jacques Séguéla on creativity, disruption in adland, and why the future is the 2-second spot

Jacques SéguélaJacques Séguéla, the S in Euro RSCG, is one of France’s most revered and outspoken creative figures, and the VP of global creativity of Havas.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, the inimitable octogenarian talks about how creativity is changing, the impact of automation, why Asia will be the next dominant force in advertising, and why the future of the business might be the two-second spot.

Monsieur Séguéla, what’s your definition of creativity?

It comes down to a simple question. Ask a client, what does snow turn into when it melts, they will say water. But not for me – not for a creative guy. When snow melts it becomes Spring. Our job is to make water into Spring. That has been the job of creative people for centuries, and has never died.

Now more than ever creativity is necessary. Why? Because in the 20th century, the screen was the winner, and dollars followed. With buying weight you could win market share. It was not about creating market share, it was buying it. But with free access to internet, only the power of the idea can get you distribution. It’s like the idea has taken its revenge against money. A phrase I use is: Money has no ideas, only ideas make money.

Our modern era has been through three revolutions, and we’re now seeing the virtual revolution. Everyone can communicate with one another virtually. There is a danger in this. Look at young people. They don’t make love in the bedroom, they make love with a phone. It’s crazy.

What does this mean for brands? For advertising, the fight for the future is to not lose the DNA of the brand – the blood, the flesh, the soul and the spirit of the brand. It can so easily be destroyed.

The big revolution has – thanks to the net – ended the dictatorship of advertising and consumption. Over the last century, it hasn’t been about advertising, it has been about propaganda. They gave me a product and I created a slogan that would live in the head of the consumer. They would have no choice, and have no capacity of response.

We’re now in the participative era of communication and consumption. Communication has been democratised. The consumer is the co-owner of the brand. They can kill a brand if it doesn’t do its job perfectly.

What do you make of the disruption going on in the agency world at the moment, with Google and Facebook getting bigger as agencies seem to get smaller?

I think it was a big mistake to separate media and creative. After Vincent Bolloré bought Havas – at that time, we were almost bankrupt – the business has been transformed. We have, for three consecutive years, recorded the best profit margin in the business, better than WPP, Publicis Groupe or Omnicom.

I told Vincent Bolloré that I would retire when he entered the business. I was 72. He said, no, stay with me. I said ok, I will stay if you put media and creative together.

Creativity was the motor of advertising in the 20th century. In the 21st century it has been media. Now we’ve brought media together at Havas and are fully integrated. It’s easier for us as we’re not so big, like a WPP or a Publicis. But we did it quickly. Vincent Bolloré sent a message to staff saying today I need us to have it finished [integration] in one month [the Havas Village, where media and creative are together under the same roof, has been established in key markets including Singapore and, soon, Jakarta].

In Paris, we have 2,500 people in three buildings. Every 15 days all the bosses sit in one big room, and discuss new business and the latest work. And it works. After the Havas Village was set up, we’ve seen the business grow by 20% in one year. All clients now want only one brand manager to drive their brand.

The master word for communication now is coherence. We have seen an explosion of media and messages. To maintain the DNA of a brand, you need coherence. If you have one agency doing media buying, another doing creative, and another doing PR, you will inevitably have friction, and you can forget about coherence.

As a creative person, what do you make of machines buying advertising these days, and what that means for creativity?

I’m not afraid of that. We have 250 mathematicians in our Paris office whose job is to create algorithms. That’s the future of media – and it’s fantastic.

The last century was about bombardments. Big planes arriving with bombs. Now it’s drones, which go in directly to the target. But what is data without ideas? It’s a gun without bullets.

At Havas, because we had no money 15 years ago, we invested little in digital. Meanwhile every other company bought everything in the digital space, particularly Publicis. They made the mistake of buying big digital silos, with no communication at all between digital and the other disciplines. I think that was one of the biggest mistakes that has been made in this business.

After that, we made the agency totally integrated. Digital, design, creative and media are together under one roof.

Now Vincent Bolloré has bought Vivendi [Bolloré, who is chairman of the French media giant and increased his stake in the firm to 12.01% in April, wants to build the world’s first fully integrated multimedia giant outside of the US]. And in the future some day – it’s a hope, maybe it will become a reality – is to merge Havas and Vivendi, to create something that it not just an advertising agency, it’s a content communications group – advertising, music, TV, movies, games and media together.

We would have a big building with maybe 2,000 creatives, and all working on the same platform. That’s the future. If advertising stays only in an advertising agency it cannot grow, it can’t develop.

There’s been talk about how people’s attention spans are a lot shorter these days. What do you make of that in the context of creativity?

We look at our phones in France 110 times a day. I think that the future of the ad spot is two seconds. I’ve made a lot of five second ads in my career before, and now we’re looking at ads that work in two seconds. This should give a creative enough time to convey emotion and meaning.

Tell us your views on Cannes, which is coming up in June, and awards.

I was at the first festival. You were not born at that time. The first was held in Venice in 1954. Back then it was only for creative guys. No clients. The awards were won mostly by the French agencies, followed by Italian, the UK and the US.

When there was a change in ownership, 20 or so years ago, an English company took over Cannes and put an end to the festival. Why? Because of clients. Cannes now is no longer a creative tool, it is a business tool. It’s a money-making festival not an ideas festival.

I have been fighting to cut the number of awards [Havas enters]. I have meetings with our six creative heads to say cut, cut, cut entries. It’s crazy.

What do you make of how the advertising business has changed over the years?

Let’s start at the beginning. Who was the inventor of advertising?

Er, Procter & Gamble? Didn’t they come up with the first soap operas?

Bullshit. It was a French guy, Charles Havas, 180 years ago. He formed Havas, which is the oldest agency in the world.

Advertising is about roots and the future. The industry is going through a period of disruption, but we have kept our roots. My job, all around the world, is to protect the roots.

The progress of advertising has not come from creativity, but through technology. Scientists are the guides of the poets. Always. Creative directors have traditionally been seen as Gods in advertising, but we are nothing. God is in the science.

For years, adverting was just print and posters. Then came audiovisual, and the great wave of television advertising. This was led by American brands, who were able to get on to screens around the world. Then media buying emerged, and discounts when you buy media in bulk. In the 20th century, was creativity the motor of advertising? Not at all. It was only about dollars.

I went to Atlanta to see all the big [TV] spots by Coca-Cola. They showed me maybe 500 Coke ads. Except for five or six, which were for awards, they were shit. They were all the same. And it’s the biggest brand in the world. Why [was the work bad]? Because of money.

The American way of life was exported, and the core values of America went into its brands – Levi’s is about freedom, Coca-Cola about family, and Nike is about youth – and so for half a century, America was the master of the advertising world.

How do you see creativity changing?

The era of anglo-saxon creativity dominating advertising will be replaced by a new era of advertising from Asia, and in 30 years, it will be Africa’s turn. Europe is out. Still, English-speaking creativity is dominant, but that will change.

English creativity starts with the head to get to the heart. The French and the Latin way starts with the heart to get the head; it’s sentimental, intimate and poetic. The American way starts with the head to get to the wallet.

Havas is very strong in France and Spain. What’s your take on how things are going in Asia for the group?

In the beginning, when we had no money, we invested first in the US, and now 35% of our business is in America. That’s good because America is still America. Then we invested in South America, and now that region is 12-15% of the business. And now the priority is Asia.

Some of the most famous work Séguéla has been involved in includes spots for Citroen, MTV, Evian, Lacoste and Canal Plus:

MTV Brazil ‘women age pillar’:

Citroen Xsara ‘Crash test’:

Canal Plus ‘Bear’:

Evian ‘Rollerbabies’:

Lacoste ‘The Big Leap’:


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