Interview with Sebastien Desclée, President of FCB International
Change the behavior of consumers. This is FCB’s the new philosophy, adopted in the process of restructuring the network. A philosophy that implies giving brands more than what they want—giving them what they need. Without losing focus on the creative product. The president of FCB International, who gathers the so-called small markets, Portugal included, guarantees it.
Briefing | He’s been president of FCB International for two years. At the time he was CEO of Publicis Belgique, a national agency. What made him embrace this challenge?
Sebastian Desclée | It’s true that I was in a national agency, but I didn’t see my role as national. I was headquartered in Brussels, but we had European clients. Today announcers can work with any agency in the world and choose the one with the most appropriate profile.
But why did I join FCB? It was an incredible challenge.
I entered into a moment in which a new page of the history of the network was being written, with a reorganization of the structure and the separation of FCB Global from FCB International. I believe in this structure—we have a vision, a project, the people. This organization responds to needs I’d already felt before, it’s an administrative structure that perceives the market. FCB International is a more agile structure, used to working in small markets—I don’t like the word small, but they are markets with different realities: the reality in Lisbon or in Zurich, in Malaysia or in Colombia is much more similar than when we compare Portugal to the United Kingdom or the United States. This vision of reorganizing the company appealed to something that I would like to have already had before.
Briefing | You prefer that we don’t call them small, but aside from size, what do the FCB International markets have in common?
SD | They are united by the same purpose—they all embrace the vision of FCB International. But the reality of an agency of 13 or 16 people, whether in Poland or Colombia, has much more in common between them than with an agency of 500 people. The same happens on the client side—in United Kingdom, a Proctor and Gamble has a brand manager for every brand, here, probably, a brand manager for all the brands on the market. Client needs are also different. And managing an agency with hundreds of people is also different than managing an agency with dozens. Even though the dynamic of the market is changing, the truth is that it is always very similar in all these markets.
Briefing | One of the factors that made you move was the vision of FCB, as you mentioned. What vision is that?
SD | Since the rebranding of DraftFCB to FCB, some years ago, we have been placing the focus on the creative product. The essence of what we do is to create big ideas for brands. We believe in an approach with a changing of behavior, and that’s what we’ve been working on together, as a group. Our vision comprises changing the behavior of consumers through ideas. This is the common denominator of our work, alongside the values that differentiate us, which are family values shared by all our offices in the world. I should say that is was a great surprise to realize that though it may be a global network, there is this feeling of proximity. As a matter of fact, FCB is the most local international network—I don’t know if you know, but 90 percent of our clients are truly local. The vision and the values that we share make us very close to each other. Look at the example of FCB Lisbon: I don’t see it as an agency headquartered in Lisbon; I see it as part of a larger group, in which we help each other. The Lisbon teams go out, to provide specific and creative expertise to other agencies, and they come here. We are very local, but we are very united, because we embrace the same vision and the same values.
The essence of what we do is to create big ideas for brands. We believe in an approach with a changing of behavior, and that’s what we’ve been working on
Briefing | Changing the behavior of consumers through ideas. Is that the role of a publicity agency?
SD | Of course. We are here to solve the business problems of our clients and the way we do that is creating ideas and strategies that can change not only the attitude, but the behavior of the consumer. That’s why we need to sit down with our clients. Changing behavior is much more profound than changing attitude. It implies much more transformation, more work and deeper strategies. Consumers are invited to a deeper involvement. And our clients are really gaining from this, what’s very promising and reassuring for the future.
Breifing | This means that you’re giving the brands what they need. But is it what they want?
SD | It’s a good debate. We are not giving brands what they want, but what they need. And sometimes we have to provoke a strong conversation with clients. But if we give them only what they want, we wouldn’t be brave enough or adequate to develop as rapidly as we think we should.
I see our role like a partnership that means, sometimes, to force the transformation a little, helping brands move more quickly. As an agency, we also have to force ourselves to go in that direction. Our challenge, as a team with our clients, is to define what’s new, see how we can create new things, given that new things imply the courage to make them. But that’s how we stand out in the mind of consumers and how we are, in fact, changing behaviors.
Briefing | But consumers themselves are changing, and at a much faster rate, for that matter, than brands.
SD | Yes, and our role is to help brands deal with that change, not only in terms of behaviors, but also values. Therefore we must understand consumers.
I like to say that, to create good work, two things are needed—one is intelligence, but in the original meaning of the Latin word intellegentia, which means to comprehend, in this case to understand what happens in the mind of the consumer, and for that we have to invest time. And then courage is needed, to create daring ideas that really speak to the consumer.
We have to understand the consumer regardless the environment. And we have to generate good ideas regardless of the media. Our role is to be neutral from the perspective of the media. It no longer makes sense to talk about digital agencies—an agency must be capable of generating ideas and strategies in this digital world even if, sometimes, we have to find outside partners. I support, in fact, the insourcing of thinking and the outsourcing of doing. Creativity is the cornerstone. The cornerstone is great ideas, regardless the media. A good idea can work in every media. The essence is to find a good idea and then the right means for communicating with consumers.
We have to understand the consumer regardless the environment. And we have to generate good ideas regardless of the media.
Briefing | What is the position of FCB in the market as a global network?
SD | FCB is truly the most local international network. In all the countries where we are present, 90 percent of the work we do is local, that is, generated locally. If you look at FCB Lisbon it’s like that. And it’s the same all over the world. We are a bottom up, not a top down network. And that defines us, just like believing that our role is to change behaviors. For me there another very important aspect: the value of the people of FCB—here there are no big egos, but rather generous people who embrace the work and help each other. I’m talking about very strong values.
FCB is truly the most local international network. In all the countries where we are present, 90 percent of the work we do is local, that is, generated locally.
Briefing |We already talked here that you moved to FCB in a moment of change for the network. What are your impressions?
The Lisbon agency welcomed the Global Creative Council of FCB International. It wasn’t the first time, by the way. Luis Silva Dias, Chief Creative Officer of the network, even says it’s becoming a tradition. And not just because of the city, even though the location is very central. It’s also because of the agency: FCB Lisbon is known for its creative reputation. “it has that attraction.” Why? “We have a very open environment and for some creative leaders it’s good to see how we work in this environment, in which the architecture is open and the hierarchy is not very visible. The office is conceived as a circle and the teams themselves are flexible, organizing according to the problem.” Sebastian Desclée agrees: “Twelve creative minds at the top of the world are united here and that says a lot about FCB Lisbon.” And what does that mean exactly? “I look at the level of work, and it’s rising, becoming known, having visibility. What they do is independent of the size of the agency. FCB Lisbon is not a large agency, but that doesn’t matter. Great ideas can come from anywhere.”
He underlines, by the way, the way the agency embraced the new ambition of FCB. And what was the point of the trip? “A combination of new projects and new literature. Edson Athayde returned with a clear vision of what he wanted to do, commit to making FCB Lisbon a better agency. And everyone is looking in the same direction, everyone is ready to get on board. That is evident in the atmosphere of the agency. It’s not only because the president of FCB International is here…”
Luis Silva Dias shares the enthusiasm. The agency, he says, is in a good moment, had a “good” closing to the fiscal year. And creatively? “We are never satisfied with the creative product, but that’s the nature of our industry. But we are improving greatly. One of our jobs, Oh my God for Harmony was chosen by Adweek and one of the best of 2015. We failed Cannes, I should recognize that I was hoping for more, but it was balanced by the recognition from the clients.”
Cannes is still on the horizon. On Lisbon and the network: “We are becoming more consistent. I have reason to believe that we will get there,” believes the president of FCB International.
SD | Today, FCB really knows where it’s going. It’s clear that there’s a strong heritage from the past and that what we are today rests on the strengths of the past. If we look at the global team, there are many people that were already in the network. But there was a key moment at FCB and people sensed it. Increasingly more people want to come to work with us, not only the talent, but clients who are interested in what we have to say as an agency. But we are still in a very initial phase of this process, there’s no complacency. We know that the work we’ve already done is great, but we also know that the work that we have ahead is even greater. But we are headed in the right direction. And I am very excited with what already happened and even more with what will happen.
There was a key moment at FCB and people sensed it. Increasingly more people want to come to work with us, not only the talent, but clients who are interested in what we have to say as an agency.
Briefing | Among the markets that are part of FCB International, there are many, like Portugal, that are experiencing an economic crisis. What is the inherent challenge for an agency that strives to change behaviors?
SD | It is, in fact, a challenge. The perception we have about Portugal is that it’s beginning to recuperate. But what we look for is to be the best partner we can to help clients get through these times. We know that consumers are always open to new and good ideas and we want to incentivize that agenda. Because we know that the way we deal with the recession sill define our success beyond the recession. This is not the time to stop was we’re doing. Brands have to continue talking with consumers. Even with smaller budgets, the important thing is how we communicate. The size of the budget does not define the size of ideas. We can have incredibly good ideas with little money. Our role is to adapt and provide good ideas to our clients, regardless of the situation. And my job is to help all these markets improve the quality of work because, at the end of the day, clients come to us because of our capacity to deliver strong ideas. This fascinates me on a daily basis.
Brands have to continue talking with consumers. Even with smaller budgets, the important thing is how we communicate. The size of the budget does not define the size of ideas.
Briefing | While you were CEO of Publicis Belgique, the agency won various awards at Cannes. Is that a goal, keeping in mind that, as you said, the quality of work at FCB has improved since the reorganization?
SD | What I strive for is to do a job that is appreciated by consumers and admired by the industry. I don’t want to win awards just to win awards, but to do transformative work. To be appreciated by consumers is the foundation. We are here to solve business problems through ideas and that only happens if the work we do is appreciated by consumers. Being admired by the industry is important because, when our work has visibility, it is also a magnet to attract talent. To be recognized at Cannes is clearly helpful. But the objective is to create better work. And, when we do good work, winning awards is a consequence.