Havas London Executive Digital Director on her impatience, honesty and ability to predict the future using AI
It may seem difficult to pin down what advertising work constitutes ‘digital’ in 2017 - everything ends up living online in some shape or form. So why do creative agencies like Havas still need dedicated executive digital directors like Lisa de Bonis? As it turns out, that’s a question she’s well used to answering, to herself as well as to others. But looking at the joined-up work coming out of Havas London recently might serve well as an answer.
Having started her career in Paris as an account manager, she’s meandered through a variety of roles to become a founding partner at Work Club, which eventually became part of Havas, where she’s played a key role since 2014.
LBB’s Alex Reeves bugged her with that question one more time and discussed quite a bit else, besides.
LBB> You were born in the US, raised in Italy and educated in the UK. And you worked in France for a while, too. How do you think that influences your perspective?
LDB> I’m a hybrid in all senses. I’m an Italian-American who grew up surrounded by 40 nationalities with a Chilean mother, etc., just randomness all over the place. I started this job in a foreign language in French. I love all those studies that say languages do funny things to your brain. I’m quite proud of that because I didn’t study Marketing - I studied International Business and Languages. Learning a new job in a foreign language is a baptism of fire. What I would like to believe is that when I meet people and hear their thinking and ideas, I don’t take anything for granted or make any assumptions. Because I’m so used to meeting people from such diverse backgrounds that I literally and metaphorically don’t know where they’re coming from.
I try to be really open-minded and I try to listen. I was told once, as a grown-up, that I pay attention. Maybe that is a good thing. I would like to believe that I’m as unbiased as a white, middle-class woman can be in our industry.
LBB> How did you end up as a strategist? What attracted you to advertising?
LDB> I love new business. So that was my entry point, in an internship at CLM BDDO in Paris and then eventually BDDP&Fils. I didn’t go for strategy. I went for new business. And what I loved about new business was the blank sheet, the impossible big questions with usually no context or background insight.
It’s not just the strategy bit. What I love is cracking a problem with people under a lot of pressure really quickly. Then I realised that I was kind of good at doing that. And that’s called strategy. But it was a result of a way of working and collaborating to solve problems that I ended up in strategy.
I started in account management, international new business, then went into planning, then became a strategist at Mother, which is a whole hybrid sort of role anyway. That was the path.
I’m quite impatient, so doing strategy within the context of new business is the kind of strategy I like. It’s very action oriented and focused on solving problems and getting stuff out the door and into the marketplace.
LBB> You were one of the five founders of Work Club. What was the big plan back then? And what was that experience like?
LDB> Personally, my motivation was to find new ways to solve problems. I found that I was getting to a point in my career where the right answer wasn’t just advertising. I was getting a bit frustrated at the inability to execute different shaped ideas. Then with Work Club as a team, there was a reason we called it that. On the work front we wanted to make work that bettered advertising and that made digital the stuff you talk about in the pub and made it meaningful and natural - the sort of thing you could tell your mum, like all of us want to do.
The work was better, more creative, more engaging, more effective. All that good stuff. And when you do it in the context of digital in 2007, that is a big deal. At the time it was banners, websites and microsites.
The club bit was just as important. That was about building a culture of collaboration and openness and attracting incredible talent. We wanted to work for ourselves because we wanted to keep on working with people that we love to hang out with and learn from. We tried really hard to imbue that and break down egos and hierarchies. That was the aim and I think we did it quite well.
It was about three companies in one. We opened up just after the Lehman Brothers crash - not a good time for start-ups. But we survived and then some. We just kept adapting depending on the needs. I learnt how to learn fast and pivot.
The talent brand thing is what I’m most proud of because to this day there are people who I’m close to and will never lose sight of, who still consider themselves Clubbers.
LBB> What was the experience like from there, being acquired by Havas and becoming part of a huge network?
LDB> When we got together as partners at Work Club we always had that in mind, maybe not in the first few years, but we knew we wanted to be part of something bigger. If we had been successful in creating that culture and product, we wanted to do it at scale. So it’s not like it came as a surprise.
We chose Havas for a very specific reason: culture. We just felt the guys we were talking to would allow us to do just that - to stand on a bigger platform next to more interesting, talented people and do what we do, rather than pigeonhole us in a digital box.
It wasn’t easy. It creates a lot of change and some people will decide not to follow. That’s natural. But the ones that have stuck around, and Ben [Mooge, ECD and Lisa’s husband] in particular, are excited about the choice we made because of the Vivendi acquisition that’s just happened as well, which is phenomenal and another proof point of how Havas, culturally, are genuinely much more entrepreneurial and have a much more long-term view on the industry.
LBB> As someone with the word 'Digital' in your job description, how do you define that word in 2017? Where does the digital work begin and end?
LDB> You need specialists. Things are getting complicated in that space - technology and innovation. Digital is definitely a thing. But the way I think of it is more as a culture. It defines certain types of ideas, but it’s just as much about social behaviours and customs. So to translate that into our jobs is to think of it as a way of working - collaboration in the greatest sense of the word and thinking about things more in systems, thinking about ideas as experiences, thinking about everything end-to-end, not working in silos. It’s all those things that everybody’s talked about. But it’s finally come of age.
LBB> You were on TV in 2016 for the US election, talking about eagleAI and predicting the result. What did you learn about AI from that experience?
LDB> That was phenomenal because it was turned around by the team in less than five weeks and actually is not very different from our day-to-day jobs. We spotted an opportunity and a hypothesis, which was ‘what if we used this type of technology to listen in and listen a bit more closely to what American voters are thinking?’ At the time we hadn’t gone in with the premise of predicting the vote [which they ended up doing, handily].
What AI allowed us to do was really explore the themes and profiles and really home in on about a billion data points and 12 million people who had expressed voting intent. Then we started to understand what they were thinking, what the hot topics were.
Obviously the big headline was that we predicted the result. So my biggest learning from that was to use it more upstream, to think about AI as a much more sophisticated research tool. And that there’s nothing like a bold, ambitious hypothesis. Start with a question you have no idea how to answer. We didn’t know what we could find out but we just explored and as the feedback was coming in we delved into some a little more.
LBB> You've spoken about and demonstrated the role of new technologies in the future of advertising. What key points do you think the industry needs to understand on that subject?
LDB> It’s always the same: what is the problem you’re trying to solve? I try to demystify all the time by bringing it back down to relevance for whoever I’m talking to. There’s so much to learn and it’s all so sophisticated. You can’t figure that out by yourself; you have to bring the experts in. But what you can do as consultants to your clients is be that bridge that contextualises how to use it and opens their eyes to different ways of applying it, whether it’s augmented reality, which is also fascinating - particularly in the consumer health space that I’m spending a lot of time in - or AI in application on chatbots and service propositions, etc.
LBB> What have you worked on recently that you're particularly proud of?
LDB> I’m also the Global Strategy Partner for GSK [Glaxo Smith Klein]. It’s funny because we started the journey winning the global position alongside one other partner for their digital and content, but in reality what we’re doing for them is taking them on a digital transformation journey. So we’re partnering with marketeers and many other parts of the business in building capability, changing the way the brief works, the way the work with us, the way they’re structured, their operating model. All those fundamental things that are needed to make a better outcome. We’re changing the inputs so that the outputs get better and they start building brands that are much more consumer-first, leveraging the right technologies at the right time.
There is a piece of work that we’re in the process of developing that involves our friends at Universal, which I’m very excited about and which is going to try to make people healthier and drive consumer behaviour change. But, while it might seem more serious, the main thing I’m proud of is that we’re part of this journey of change and capability building.
LBB> That sounds like a huge job!
LDB> It is. I need to manage my patience. That’s the main challenge. I just want things to happen faster and these things take time.
LBB> What piece of advice or lesson do you wish you'd received earlier in your career?
LDB> One that I’ve unashamedly always lived by is just to speak your mind. I think sometimes we lose sight of the truth and there’s nothing as refreshing as someone who just says it all. Someone I care for dearly once told me that the truth ‘was my USP’ and I love her for it. I would encourage everyone to be honest with themselves, ask the questions that are really going through their minds, ignore the politics, don’t second guess. Just speak the truth. With clients and colleagues.
The other thing is something I’m just learning now at this stage in my life - perhaps a little belatedly. It’s to ride the wave. I’ve always worked with disruptors and independent agencies until recently. I’ve gone against the curve. Now, because of my passion, because of where we are as a society and the role that technology pays, I want to focus on going where the momentum, energy and, ultimately, the investments are going, to be able to influence and make a greater impact.
LBB> That’s really honest as well. Agencies often talk about pushing against the client, but in the end the client has the final say. So a lot of people end up eventually having to capitulate.
LDB> Yeah. It’s so hard to get great work out there that makes a difference as it is. Let’s invest our energy in that and move forward and upwards, rather than having internal day-to-day strife and conflict.
LBB> What are you passionate about outside of work? What stokes your engines?
LDB> The truth is that I’m a busy person with a big job and I have two children, a dog and a husband to hang out with. I’m pretty cool about the two being one because I work with my husband. So I just try to make sure when I’m with my family I’m really focused on enjoying that moment and making the most of it.
Also, finding and learning from other women like me. I have finally realised that I want to, but also have an obligation to really drive the over-discussed, but rightly so, topic of diversity and gender equality. It took me a few years to realise that I was one of those people that was meant to talk about it. I kept asking others and talking in private circles. Through the last through years I’ve had a lot of conversations with other women looking to me to help them. So now I’ve shifted into grown-up mode. It’s part of my job and I think it’s an honour. I will try to help in every way I can. But even people like me who want to and can sometimes lose sight of it because we’re so in the midst of crazy lives. We need society and organisations to remind us that we have this duty and help us get organised so we can fulfil it.