MullenLowe Group’s Asia-Pacific CEO Vincent Digonnet on the highs and lows of a life and career in advertising that has traversed multiple geographies and disciplines, with still time left over for riding horses and rocking out with the guitar on stage.
I was born in St Etienne, France, but grew up in Marseille where I developed most of the traits that define me now.
I learned to ski at five, horse riding at seven and playing the guitar at 11, and these activities remain my passion to this day. As a teenager I hesitated between becoming a rock star, a professional rider, or a leading dancer.
The books that shaped my personality were written by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London.
My mottos were a precept from Nietzsche – “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously”; and Oscar Wilde: “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth”.
I have certainly lived by these two precepts. Adrenaline kicks were as vital to me as the air I was breathing.
My first real paradox came in the mid-70’s when I had to do one year of military service. At a time when peace and love were my generation’s motto, and when I was singing Bob Dylan with long hair and flowery shirts, most of my friends tried to dodge draft or find a quiet spot, sleeping in an administrative office.
For me the call to adventure became stronger than my hippy convictions of the time, and I thought that I may as well do something I would never have the opportunity of doing again, while checking what I was made of.
As I was a good skier, I enrolled in the mountain scouts’ section, and spent 300 days trekking in the Alps, skiing down off-track slopes, sleeping under igloos that we built at 4,000-meter altitude and -35 degree Celsius. I also discovered an ability with a rifle and became one of the two snipers of the section.
My second paradox came roughly at the same time. My wife and I have been together since she was 16 and I was 18, and three children and five grandchildren later, we are still together. Which for somebody claiming to want to live dangerously is rather conventional.
Fresh from a Masters from Lyon Business School in France and an MBA from Schulich School of Business in Toronto (known as York University at the time), with a major in international business strategy and finance, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I interviewed in all directions: marketing, finance, management consulting, automotive industry, financial institutions and FMCG companies. The real question for me was: “In ten years, did I want to be like the person interviewing me?”
Every time the answer was “no”. I was not inspired. They were mapping my career path, my future salary, my life. And I did not want my life to be scripted.
Through connections, one early morning in Paris during the summer of 1980, I met with Bernard Brochand, at the time president of Eurocom, France largest holding company in advertising. That meeting transformed my life. He was larger than life, passionate, inspiring and multi-talented (after graduating from a top French business school, he had toyed between becoming a professional football player and starting in advertising.)
This was the start of a career in advertising that would take me from Paris to London and eventually to Asia. My choices were not influenced by what I had learnt but by the people I met.
At the time, advertising drove change and created new marketing rules of engagement. I wanted to be part of the magic it generated and the feeling that nothing was impossible.
I embraced the challenges of globalisation and led advertising changes for brands like Mars and Master Foods while at DMB&B in both Paris and London, as well as the marketing transformation of companies like Air France from national to worldwide carrier at Euro RSCG where I worked for 13 years.
When I left DMB&B for RSCG which then became Euro RSCG, I wanted to apply all the learnings from 10 years in Anglo-American global networks in London and Paris, to a French agency with the objective of becoming global.
In retrospect, I fit much better in Anglo-American networks. But this experience allowed me to work with Jacques Seguela, the S of RSCG, and the second largest influencer in my career. Jacques is a creative leader, a fantastic listener, a sponge, always ahead of trends by six months, and with an enormous respect for the culture and the brands of his clients. I worked 13 years with him, in Paris and 10 in Singapore where I moved in 1995 as managing director, becoming CEO of South East Asia in 1997, and finally CEO of the Euro RSCG Group in Asia-Pacific for eight years, leading the transformation of a collection of advertising agencies into a network of fully integrated operations.
The move to Asia was as much a career opportunity as it was a life decision. As much as I loved London and slightly less Paris, the 90s were not as exciting as the 80s, and the very developed and structured environment in Europe – both professionally and culturally – was leaving little room for adventure.
Asia was in building and growth mode, decision making was fast, energy was high, and it did not take you very long before you could see the results of your actions. This was also true for life outside work. In Europe, I was an adequate amateur show jumping rider, competing in London and then Paris in small shows.
In Asia in 1995, the sport started to develop and I soon rode for Singapore in regional competitions, culminating in 1998 when we won the Nation’s Cup. I totally stopped two years later, when the level became totally professional and I started to be way outside my league.
Nevertheless, I had experienced the thrill of big competitions, not that dissimilar to the thrill of walking on stage for a big pitch.
In 2005, I lost my job like many leaders do, at an age when it is time to take stock of one’s professional life. Conscious that the digital revolution was only in its infancy, and that advertising networks would not undertake the fundamental structural changes necessary to drive digital opportunities fast enough, it was time to reinvent myself.
I became an entrepreneur and started a joint venture in Shanghai with a major Chinese digital company developing a high-level, online operational marketing consultancy as well as a platform to manage CRM programs on mobile.
It was slightly ahead of time, and I could experience first-hand the financial meltdown which started to hit China in 2009, the collapse of the early mobile communities: Fenyang, Bedo etc and the rise of Tmall, Weibo and later Weixin.
In 2011, I joined Razorfish as CEO Asia-Pacific to build out their China, India, Hong Kong and Australia operations, a network able to accompany clients in their business transformation, particularly through the development of e-commerce and social media capabilities, both organically and through acquisitions.
It was during this time that I truly learned about Asia as a powerhouse of innovation. I’ve been speaking to business leaders and global media about this in recent years, particularly on how China is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to social commerce.
That was during the day. At night I was playing in bars in Shanghai with a rock band, still dreaming I could become a rock star.
In 2015, I moved to London as chief growth and transformation officer for Razorfish International. I shared the innovation and knowledge of Asia with global business leaders, leading our own business transformation internationally with the innovative thinking and technologies of the East.
I moved back to Asia two years later as Asia-Pacific CEO for Mullenlowe Group. I had led the development and the transformation of an advertising network with Euro RSCG, an experience design and business transformation network with Razorfish.
I now had the opportunity to lead the development of a group comprised of advertising, business transformation, media and PR networks, which was a neat way to close the loop, particularly at a time when all these businesses are severely disrupted, the lines totally blurred and when analysing what worked in the past does not help in building what will work in the future.
I have always said that one day I will write a book on the analogy between riding and training horses and leading and managing organisations. In both cases, you deal with something ten times stronger and more resilient than you are.
You only win if it wants to do what you want. In both cases you need strong legs and soft hands. You can never demand, only ask, impulse and show the direction. In both cases, chemistry is more important than sheer talent.
There are a number of times I have won show jumping competitions when my horse was not the best on the field and I was far from being the best rider. But the partnership I had built with my horse made up for it.
In the same way, it is not always the best work that wins, nor the most talented people, but the best chemistry in the team presenting. There are teams you want to be part of, and others you don’t, even if they are individually brilliant.
Which leads me to my motto in recruitment: “Hire on attitude and train on skill”. In the world of communication where creativity is a key driver, culture is probably the single most important differentiator.
Intelligence, wit, insight, talent, creativity, lateral thinking, collaboration are all very important qualities required in this business, but there is one I value above all others, and which is the most difficult to find, and that is courage.
Winning a pitch. I will never be jaded
Winning with great strategy and great work.
Building teams everybody wants to be part of
Transforming operations to be ahead of trends
Losing a pitch. I will never get used to it.
Seeing great talents leave
Transforming operations too late, when already on the back foot.
Dos and don’ts
Hire on attitude and train on skill. You can never go wrong if you follow that rule.
Everybody makes mistakes. The mark of a great leader is to recognise it and to correct it very quickly.
The worst time to transform an operation and make structural changes is when that operation is on the down trend, but it is unfortunately what most people do, following the precept: “Do not change a winning team”.
The most difficult is to make those changes ahead of time, when your back is not against the wall, when you are still winning. It is the most rewarding at the same time.
Vincent Digonnet is the Asia-Pacific CEO at MullenLowe Group, based in Hong Kong
This article was originally published on Mumbrella Asia