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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Raquel Chicourel

M&C Saatchi’s chief strategy officer on her surprisingly swashbuckling adventures, how her journalism training feeds into planning and her love of sci-fi

5 Minutes with… Raquel Chicourel

Raquel Chicourel may well be one of the most interesting people you could choose to have a conversation with. She’s a collection of intriguing contradictions and surprises.

She may have lived in the UK for nearly 20 years. She may now be more likely to order a cup of builder’s tea than coffee. But don’t let that fool you. M&C Saatchi’s new chief strategy officer is still fuelled by the passion and spirit of her native Brazil.

She may have a love of sci-fi and have grown up as a bookish ‘geek’, but her childhood is interspersed with moments of pure, swashbuckling Indiana Jones adventure. As a young girl, she saved her best friend from drowning in quick sand. As a young woman, she inadvertently discovered a new subspecies of snake – when it bit her while she was volunteering in the Atacama Desert. But Raquel is no adrenaline junkie, instead it’s a sense of insatiable curiosity that drives her. And that’s a pretty handy personality trait for a strategist.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Raquel at M&C Saatchi’s London HQ to pick her sizeable brains.


LBB> Your biography reads like an Indiana Jones film, saving lives and getting bitten by snakes! 

RC> I was very little. I didn’t have a choice, I didn’t blink. He started to sink in quick sand back in Rio and there was no question in my heart that I should fasten a rope and go and help him.

And later on when I got bitten by a snake… I’m not an adventurer. I don’t see myself as someone who chases adventure. But I am fairly fearless. I always wanted to see the world and do things that other people have not done. I went to do voluntary work near the bottom of the Atacama Desert with Doctors Without Borders. I don’t know, things like that. I voluntarily worked in slums in Kenya when I worked at BBH at Kibera to do an ethnographic study for a big global brand.  I don’t know why I do these things. I don’t call myself an adventurer. Adventure finds me and I have a curious spirit.


LBB> With the snake – and I’m aware I’m probably bringing up quite a traumatic experience… 

RC> I laugh now! Now it has become a story that I tell at the pub, even though I was quite traumatised at the time. My mum always had this thing where life will throw you lemons – it’s how you react to things that makes you the person that you want to be. Initially it was hard for me to talk about it.

My uncle was with me at the time. He said to me, ‘of course I was fearing for you but, above all things, I was fearing your mother!’ He was worried about his big sister more than the coral snake!


LBB> And I believe the snake that bit you was a previously undiscovered species. How on earth did you have the presence of mind to realise that while you were being bitten?

RC> It was a subspecies of coral snake. There are generic anti-venoms, but the most effective anti-venoms are the ones that are made in the moment from the actual type of snake that bit you. My uncle had the presence of mind to grab the snake by the head and take it with him to the hospital, but then it turned out it was a coral snake, a recognisable species, but it had a set of orange rings and qualified as a new subspecies because of the pattern.


LBB> So after all that early adventure you went on to study journalism as an undergrad – I understand that it was driven by a desire to educate people and strengthen democracy. Where do you think this political or civic sensibility came from?

RC> Picture this: the home I grew up in. My mum was a doctor. She helped save lives. I used to love reading the letters her patients sent her thanking her for spotting the cancer at a point when it was easy to treat, or helping them through it. That always stayed with me; I wanted to make an impact on the world like her. 

Equally my father was this engineer and built dams in Brazil. His role was to build a dam but make sure it had as minimal environmental impact. He was a massive environmentalist. 

So I think inevitably growing up in a household with those two big influences in my life you just grow up wanting to make a difference in the world, pick a profession that would have a meaning and give purpose to your life. So that’s what it came from. When it came to choosing what to do I chose journalism because I thought that it was a good way to persuade people to vote for better presidents or find angles to a story that people haven’t thought of. At school people would tell me that I could write really well and I had stories published, so I thought maybe I could be good at that.


LBB> I’d guess the practise of finding stories and speaking to people might be useful when working as a planner or strategist?

RC> Yeah it is a bit like being an investigative journalist. It definitely influenced the planner I am today. I read a Harvard Business Review story about CQ – curiosity quotient. I think you need to be super curious to be a great creative strategist. You’re finding different angles to get to the truth, and there might be different kinds of truths – cultural truths or brand truths. Or are there any tensions I should be looking at? What is the cultural tension behind this insight that would make sense for this brand to plug onto? I always had this spirit of curiosity that would allow me to examine things from different angles. I also think there’s a bit of storytelling and narrative that the background helps with. It helps strategists from the art of persuasion to brand stories.


LBB> So when you came to the end of your course, was that when you discovered advertising?

RC> It was actually in my second year. I studied journalism in the same building as and even studied similar classes to the people who studied advertising. JWT put up a poster in my uni for their grad selection exam. My friends who were studying advertising said, ‘let’s do it’. 

I was a bit reluctant but I thought I’d have a go. But in truth I was only doing it because my mates were doing it. To my surprise , I just loved the three hours I spent doing the exam! They were not just questions, they asked you to think of different angles, to imagine lots of things and I loved doing that. But that didn’t make me change direction. What made me change direction was that a month later I got a call from JWT saying not only had I passed, I basically had the top mark, so they wanted me to go in to be interviewed to see if I was the right person for the company culturally. And that’s how it all started.


LBB> And what was that first job like?

RC> Those were different times. The internet was just starting… I remember there were very few computers in the agency. As a strategy grad I had access to one of them so I felt like I had the power! Because I was fearless. I think a lot of the older generation at the time felt a bit nervous about this thing called ‘the internet’.


LBB> Looking back, while you were one of the ‘keepers of the internet’ I imagine you also had to do a lot of old school research, phoning people, getting out…

RC> It was a lot more of being a true investigator. You would just get out. From doing a true ethnography to going to the supermarket, checking out what was sitting next to the product, trying the competitor, going to the factory, talking to various people who don’t necessarily work in marketing. Those were special times, I felt we were much closer to the heart of the business. 

I also felt that those times – and I caught the tail end of it – agencies had a seat in the clients’ boardrooms. The CEO was only one phone call away. Nowadays I think the CEO of a client and the CEO of an agency only see each other one or two times a year. Agencies used to have a say on innovation, strategy – not just for the brand but also for the business. We were more important upstream. Those were special days because we were much more part of their business. There was a lot more dedication in that sense.


LBB> In some ways I imagine that the information age and boom in technology is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to digging out insights – access to people and ideas and culture from around the world and yet swamped with data and content… what’s your take?

RC> There’s value in both. The brilliant thing today is that you have access to a lot more data and you can make educated decisions. But I think nothing replaces a visit to a factory or John Hegarty walking through the arches of Audi and seeing Vorsprung Durch Technik. You need to do both. 

The need to deal with the complexity is at the heart of the job of a planner. All that matters is one thing really. In this day and age, ‘brutal simplicity’ is more important than ever. With all this fake news and access to information that people have today, and the cynicism of what’s true and what’s not true, I think talking about one single thing and really well is really important. I think brands that can master that will emerge victorious. Sadly people like Trump, for example, are very good at it. 

Simplicity is something planners have talked about for decades – but I couldn’t think of a more relevant age for simplicity than now.


LBB> Moving back to your career, what was it that led you to move to London?

RC> That jump was a personal jump! It was for love. My ex was transferred here and I decided to take the leap of faith and come along. I think the decision to remain was then more of my decision. I fell in love with the city and the country and the culture. To be honest, until Brexit I felt really welcomed here and that I had – I still do – an opportunity to thrive. 

There was a moment, when I had my first child (I have three girls), when I faced the dilemma of whether I should go back to be close to my family or stay. I thought, if Alice wants to be a ballet dancer or a journalist, she can be that in London without starving. But in Brazil you have to pick well-established professions like being an accountant or a lawyer. If I could give my children one gift, it would be the freedom to dream. 

When I say that to my friends who grew up here, I think they take it for granted. The wonderful things you can do – it’s up to you to grab it by the horns. A lot of other countries, like Brazil, don’t really get to have that. 

It’s been home for nearly 20 years and it’s going to carry on being home.


LBB> In terms of the culture do you feel more British than Brazilian?

RC> I certainly drink more tea than coffee now! I used to care less about the time, now I’m super punctual. I think I have been a bit anglicised in my ways, I guess, but I’ve kept my Brazilian spirit. If you ask anyone here or in my previous agencies, they would always refer to me as a heart player. You can take the girl out of Rio but you can’t take Rio – and Brazil – out of the girl.


LBB> More recently you came over to M&C Saatchi. What was it about the team and role at M&C Saatchi that tempted you over?

RC> I think I got to a point in my career where I thought, ‘ok where I am now is not my home, it’s not where I want to be’. Now where is that place? Is it client side? As everyone else is, I was worrying about the industry and the back of the holding company era. It is becoming more of a volume business and there’s a depletion in the value of what we create. At some points creativity is given for free and companies are undercutting each other. I looked at that and thought ‘how did we get here?’ 

I lived the tail end of the times when uncompromising creativity was at the heart of everything. I was at BBH when it was the best agency in the world and all anyone in that building cared about was the primacy of the idea. I miss that. I thought that if I was going to pick an agency and stay in this business, it would have to be an agency that will offer me the entire opposite of the holding company model. So I started to look for agencies that had more of that spirit. 

The impression I got over the six-month process of interviews is that this agency is the biggest start up in London. It’s an agency with a maverick spirit. It's independent. Independence is the big word. It’s agile and fluid. We don’t need to sit and wait for three or four weeks for word from Paris. If something feels right, exciting and different, it’s a go-er.


LBB> And how do you find it?

RC> It looks quite serious from the outside but I realised in my first week that there’s a lightness to this place. It’s quite bubbly. It’s a coat of many colours despite the black and white walls. In spirit the soul of the place is not monochromatic at all. 

These are the ones who will thrive and not only survive the times that we’re going through but reinvent the industry. I believe we are getting to the end of the holding company era and we’re going to start the rise of the independent era. I might be wrong but I do believe that’s where the market is going.


LBB> And since you joined, what have been your initial priorities?

RC> When you start a new job there’s always an eagerness to be an agent of change. Maybe it’s just me but I thought, ‘nobody really knows me here, therefore nobody really trusts me yet and no one likes change’. These are the three critical things you have to consider. So I’ve been taking my time to understand the culture here. I’ve been looking at the planning structure, looking at how planning can be a bigger part of the creative development process, so the input of strategists in certain parts of the creative development process will impact the quality of the work. I think an important part of the job is to not only to do the external influence thing but make sure that the quality of the creative output is greater and raises the bar. So I’ve been working on client briefs and pitches. I think I was the last piece in the senior management puzzle and they’ve been eagerly awaiting me starting.


LBB> So here’s a question I hope isn’t too stupid, but ‘planner’ and ‘strategist’ – do you see these as the same thing or interchangeable titles or is there a difference?

RC> I prefer strategist. I think because it’s more truthful about what we do. We don’t ‘make plans’. We create significant, meaningful strategies for brands and businesses. We don’t make plans. 


LBB> Traditionally, the strategist comes in at the beginning of the process with an insight or a brief, but that feels like quite a linear way of working and I guess things are a bit more dynamic and collaborative. I was wondering what you think is the most effective way for strategists and creatives to get the best out of each other?

RC> I think that the times of the lone wolf planner were over long ago. I think a big lesson for me in my BBH days was seeing that the reason the strategists were brilliant and the work was brilliant was that not a single brief was written just by the planner. It was completely collaborative. There’s no such thing as ‘they’ and ‘we’ when it comes to planners and creatives at the best agencies I worked. It’s the same here. Not a single brief is written by the strategist alone. 


LBB> Who are the thinkers that inspire and influence you – and why?

RC> I was having a conversation the other day where I was saying that obviously I read – but the things that really influence me as a planner are the things I consume. I watch a lot of Ted Talks. I love listening to podcasts. I love reading blogs, and the small soundbites of wonder that planners share on twitter. Or interesting people in the world. These are the things that feed my enthusiasm. From Netflix to Jim Carroll’s blog, anything goes!]


LBB> What are you watching at the moment?

RC> There’s Westworld season two. I’m a big sci-fi fan, so really I love things like Black Mirror, which I completely devour. Hand Maid’s Tale, Game of Thrones, I could go on! But sci-fi really is my thing. I grew up being a nerd at a time when it was not cool to be a nerd – I was called a geek.


LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to recharge your batteries?

RC> What gives me perspective and keeps me grounded – and I feel ashamed of it – is watching and knowing every single Disney Pixar film! I have three little girls, aged 10, eight and five, and I feel like I have watched and re-watched these stories again and again. I find that as a mother and as a strategist I learn a lot from that.

And from a mental hygiene point of view, rather than for any physical reason, I like running. I go for a run once a week on Hampstead Heath and I hate running on a treadmill. I need to be free and get out. Even if it’s raining, I don’t care. That is my mental moment when I have the best thoughts and ideas – or I just relax. That’s how I roll outside work – running and enjoying my children and Pixar and Netflix.