‘We are family’: Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré on his legacy, $4bn fortune, big China deal and Snapchat snobbery

The youthful chief executive officer of Havas, French native Yannick Bolloré, opens up to Mumbrella Asia’s Dean Carroll on what lies ahead for his company and the rapidly-changing ad industry

To start off, what’s the latest on Google, YouTube and Havas ad spends on programmatic – it all seems to have got rather messy?

“Brand safety is important for our clients. We had the trouble in the UK because some YouTube ads went into the wrong environment. As we do all the time when something like that happens, we proposed to our clients in the UK that they paused their investments until the environment is safe again. And we are working hard with Google there to find a solution.

“But that is not our global position, it’s only a problem in the UK. Google is still a very valuable platform for us and it’s very effective for our clients.

“Any story relating to Google always has a large echo so it was all over the press. It has led to an intense discussion between the brands, the media agencies and Google. But we were one of the first agencies to create a meta-quality barometer, which makes sure that the environment where we buy programmatically is safe.”

And what does the episode tell us about the role of media agencies now?

“This incident shows how young the digital industry is. It’s at the very early stages so we as an industry are still making some mistakes. But what it also shows is that the role of media agencies is key.

“Last year, people were asking me whether media agencies were still relevant in a world where Google goes directly to service its inventory to clients. What happened in the UK proves that the role of media agencies is still central in the world of media buying because only we can let our clients know what are the pros and cons, and risks, of working directly with a media owner. To conclude, we will continue investing to make sure that our clients ads appear only in the right environments.”

You recently opened the Havas European HQ in London. Isn’t it a weird time to do so given Brexit and Britain’s decision to turn away from the European Union?

“When we took the decision to open the HQ there, we didn’t know that Brexit would happen. Being honest with you, it was a surprise. After discussing it for a couple of months, we decided to maintain our investment in the UK because we believe the country will continue to be one of the biggest economic centres in the world.

“I am sure they will find a treaty that allows the UK to work with other countries in the EU. I am in London a lot and I’m really not worried for the future there.”

You’ve said previously that India will be the biggest advertising market within two decades and China is obviously a global juggernaut already. Where else in Asia do you see massive growth?

“Well, China is the second largest advertising market in the world after the US and all the research suggests China will become the largest ad market in the world so we are looking to find scale there through acquisitions and partnerships. We want to find a strong local partner and we are expecting to finalise such a deal this year.

“We already have a strong hub in Singapore from where we manage South East Asia and that represents 2,400 Havas employees across 17 countries. Singapore and Shanghai are the two key hubs for us with a little bit of Hong Kong too. And we have a strong operation in Australia with 400 employees.

“You have to fish where the fishes are and the vast majority of the international headquarters of our clients are located in these places.”  

You also said recently that “politics doesn’t have much of an impact” on your business and the media. Is that really true – Trump, Brexit, the rise of Marine Le Pen – none of these political issues affect your revenue in a negative way?

“Often, the opposite will actually be true. Everybody told us that Brexit would be a big drama, but we have had a very strong year-end in the UK and the outlook also looks very positive. People are talking about a crash in the UK, but if you go to London you will see that all the restaurants are full and the people are motivated, and joyful.

“In the US, people were predicting economic turmoil following the Trump election. But the situation there is very positive too. So political happenings do not always have the effect people expect.

“In France, as a citizen, of course I could have some concerns. But at the end of the day, the Havas Group has been here for 182 years. And whatever happens politically I have no doubt that we will still be here in the future. So in the medium to long-term, I am really not worried at all.”

There are 20,000 Havas employees around the world. Is that a weight on your shoulders, to think that all of these people are depending on you to keep them in work at a time when the global economy is weak and the media and marketing industry is in a period of consolidation at best, and managed decline at worst?

“No because we have a very strong management team all around the world as well as a clear strategy and vision so I’m very well supported by strong leaders. Therefore, it’s really not a burden.

“Having managed smaller scale companies too, I even think that it’s easier to manage a global group because you have the opportunity to work with great talent. If you have the right teams in place, it is much easier to find growth and to manage it.”

The average age of a Havas employee is 27. That suggests the upper echelons of management are not overly top-heavy. Do you have certain processes in place to prevent that happening? I mean, you also said last year you wouldn’t hire anybody who is not on Snapchat.

“What I said was that I wouldn’t hire anybody who thinks Snapchat is only for kids. It’s important to remain curious in life when you are living in a world of such rapid change. When you work in advertising, you need to be able to target the millennials and for that you need to understand how these new platforms are working.

“Someone who thinks he is too old to try Snapchat would not be the right fit for for us at Havas because we need to be able to service our clients in targeting every segment of the population. It is important to remain young in your head whatever age you are. Every member of the Havas family around the world must embrace innovation. Too often, people are scared to leave their comfort zones. However, you have to keep evolving in order to understand new trends.”

So just how much does Havas spend on Snapchat compared to other mediums like Google, Facebook, television, radio, newspapers and magazines or outdoor?

“It’s just the beginning so I would be more comfortable to answer that question in a year from now. We are just now starting the discussions with Snapchat and advertisers. But generally digital is now becoming the number one in media, before TV.

“Google is, of course, the number one digital player and Facebook the number two. For now, those two are taking the lion’s share of digital advertising. Maybe we will have a new player like Snapchat or another platform that will gain market share. But at the moment, Google and Facebook are very persuasive in convincing clients.”

Changing topic, Havas Group revenue growth was 17.3 per cent in 2015 and just 3.3 per cent in 2016. What are your projections for 2017?

“It is still too early to say for sure, but I think 2017 will look like 2016 more or less. To be in an industry growing somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent is already really good. Some of our clients would be over the moon, if their industries were growing by 2 to 4 per cent.”

How is the merging of Havas of creative and media into one under your new village model coming along? There must be some teething problems to overcome, getting the suits and the creatives to view themselves as one and the same. Have you moved beyond the Game of Thrones moment to something a bit more collaborative?

“It depends on the country because each place has its own legacy in terms of the organisational structure. But for me the right model is to have everyone in the right place working hand-in-hand with each other.

“It’s important that our creative people are informed on media innovation and they understand how the media landscape works. So if you just put your TVCs on Snapchat, it will never work. Social media ads, for example, are very different to traditional formats. And on mobile, people are often looking at ads without sound. Everything is changing and it’s important for creative to understand that.

“And, at the same time, media people need to be creative and to understand how content works. In the media world, 10 years ago you could pay for people’s attention. Today, you need to earn people’s attention with good content. Especially when people are using ad blockers.

“Creative and media needs to work together. There is no other choice. It will take some time, but we do need to create a much more integrated offering in order to meet the client expectations.”

Do you then disagree then with those that say it is ‘The age of the independent agency’ being able to provide fleet-of-foot bespoke solutions, while the big networks are slow to respond because their processes are rigid?

“The local independent agencies will always be there for the more specific tasks, but the largest advertisers need to have access to global networks and when it comes to digital they need the access to tools. The only way to get the best tools is to have the scale to invest in these tools.

“We are not really competing with independent agencies. Sometimes we are partnering with them, although for me it’s not really the same world that the big ad groups and the independent shops occupy.”

When are Vivendi (French media giant) and Havas going to merge, giving the synergies and your position at the senior level in both companies? Or do European Union antitrust laws prevent this scenario from ever occurring?

“There have been a lot of rumours, but I don’t want to comment on rumours. Both the companies are listed so I’m not allowed to disclose anything. But I can tell you that today no discussions are happening between the two groups. As the Vivendi CEO said ‘time will tell’.”

Is there any other mergers and acquisitions activity on the horizon for Havas beyond the deal in China you are working on – what are your other expansion plans for the future, if any?

“Yeah, well I’d love to close the China deal this year. That’s very important for me and for our clients. We are happy that we bought RIverorchid, which is the biggest player in IndoChina. We will also perhaps look at something in North East Asia this year. Otherwise, we also have expansion plans in both the United States and Europe.”

A bit of a curveball for you now. According to Forbes, you are worth approximately US$4bn. Do you find it difficult to stay motivated with that sort of family wealth behind you?

“The question makes me smile. Of course it’s not a cash fortune, but an equity fortune and we own the company as a family. The Bolloré Group has been around for two centuries, it was created in 1822. So I would love for my daughters to one day be working in this company and their children after them and so on.

“It is about making this family company last for the next century. It’s really not about the wealth, but doing something with your life.”

And you’ve indicated that you’ll still be at the head of the company in 20 years from now and that this creates certainty and stability for clients and shareholders. But given how quickly artificial intelligence is evolving and how it is predicted that software will do most jobs in the future, is that a realistic prediction? Won’t the robots be doing everything for you two decades from now?

“It’s true that I can’t tell you how the company will be in 20 years because it is changing so fast. My duty is to take the right decisions now that ensure the company adapts to the new paradigm that will exist in 20 years. You know, Havas was very different 20 years ago than it is today. We will adapt as with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“I would love to have an army of robots, but in the creative industries you need to have a human brain. I can’t believe that one day an algorithm will be able to create the same magic as a human brain so I think I will still need to be there in 20 years, along with my senior management team, to still create great campaigns.”

You play tennis to a high level and you run marathons as well as having a large family and being a global CEO. How do you find the time for all of that? Can you run us through your average day and outline your work-life balance?

“I have a great family and we spend a lot of time together at the weekends. During the week it’s not very easy, but I am trying to come back to Paris for at least a third of my time. I always aim to spend at least 20 to 30 minutes together with the family every day.

“Technology now is a game-changer. It means when I’m in Asia, South America or New York, for example, I can Skype with them or FaceTime them. I always have that daily interaction with my daughters thanks to these tools.

“And then during school holidays, my family will join me wherever I have to go in the world. Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like I spend a good amount of time with them. I try to do all of my work between 8am and 9pm, although the last two months with the reorganisation have meant that hasn’t always been possible.”

Finally, what differentiates Havas from the competition in your view and what industry game-changing things are you working on that will ensure you remain ahead of the curve?

“We have agility so that means we can move at speed. And even more important than that is the capacity we have to work for the long term. Being owned by the family group means Havas is not focused only on short-term quarterly earnings. Instead, we are focused on building the group for the future and the next generation.

“I am serious when I say that one day I hope my young daughters will be working alongside me here. That means I take decisions on the basis that they will be fruitful in the next decade. I don’t think about just cutting costs in order to have a good year in 2017. Rather, we think about how to invest in the right structure, the right people and the right tools. All my brothers and sisters work in the Bolloré Group so it’s really a family company.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing