A sudden breeze rippled across the garden in Cannes where I was interviewing Carole Giroud, scattering my notes across the lawn. Many agency leaders would have simply watched, or waited for an assistant to intervene, but the CEO immediately leapt to her feet and helped me chase the escaping sheets of paper.
Perhaps not your average leader, then. Certainly one with empathy; which is useful, because one of her main goals is to ensure that everyone works seamlessly together. Carole has helped oversee the consolidation of Serviceplan Group’s House of Communication in France. For those of you who are not familiar with the set-up, the HoC comprises Serviceplan (creative), Plan.Net (digital) and Mediaplus (media, of course) under one roof.
“Today I would say that the role of each agency is equally balanced: they work and progress together,” says Carole.
The evolution is partly architectural: at Serviceplan’s old site in Paris, the three elements were on different floors. In the new headquarters, they’re literally on the same level. “It allows the disciplines to collaborate far more naturally. It's fascinating, because you can see how everyone is enriched by the expertise of the others. And for our clients, it allows much easier access to all the skills that we offer.”
This broad approach offers a faster route to solutions for clients, by bringing multidisciplinary teams to a problem. “We’re increasingly developing what we call a customization approach. Take for example what we’ve done for BMW and MINI. The challenge was to evolve their business model, and we came up with a solution by applying the entire range of our skills.”
Local yet international
Balance is also apparent in terms of the mix of local and international clients, she adds. “I’d say it’s now about 50:50, which was our objective. So we’re not only working with the group’s international clients in France, but giving local clients an international reach.”
The group, founded in Germany in 1970, has since expanded its global footprint across Europe and into Asia, and strengthened its operation in the Americas. The French agency works closely with its European partners, recently collaborating on a pitch in the Benelux region, and helping a French software company develop in Spain.
We also briefly discuss work-life balance. Like many agencies in the post-lockdown era, Serviceplan encourages its employees to work at the office three days a week. The hybrid format is attractive when it comes to recruiting talent, although Carole notes that younger workers are often happier when mingling with their colleagues. “As they’re still in the early phase of their careers, they feel the need to learn, to share, to exchange.”
With its European roots, Serviceplan differs from many international networks in France, which often have a US heritage. But its true cultural differences lie in the way it does business. “Our independence is key,” says Carole. “And also our entrepreneurial spirit. As agency leaders we’re all business people, striving for the same goal, for one global enterprise. That’s very much in the spirit of our owner and CEO, Florian Haller. Although we’re located in many different countries, in terms of company culture we all speak the same language.”
She adds that Serviceplan Group’s leaders tend to be loyal. “We’re not here to stay for five years and then move on. We’re working on a long-term project together.”
Helping brands to listen
Carole notes that the group’s lean and efficient organization gives it a human dimension that more sprawling networks lack. “We bring that human approach to our clients, too. There’s a sense of accessibility.”
Like all agencies right now, Serviceplan is facing a market struggling with inflation (although France is weathering the storm better than many). “I think brands understand that in a period like this, their purpose becomes even more fundamental. Rather than embarking on a price war, in which all brands start to look alike, they want to explain their particular value to consumers, to give some meaning to what they offer. Which of course includes their approach to climate change and all the other challenges facing us today.”
She observes that many of the group’s young recruits share these concerns. “They want to make a difference – and it’s even more important to them then their job title, their salary and whether they can work remotely.”
The pandemic has caused many people to re-evaluate their lives, including how they spend their money. As consumers, they’ve become more demanding. “As a result, brands are listening more carefully,” says Carole. “They’re asking themselves, ‘How can I best respond to the needs of the consumers I want to reach?’ This makes our metier even more interesting, because we can accompany our clients by providing rich and detailed analysis upstream, which gives us an extremely fine understanding of their target markets and enables us to resonate with consumers in a much more granular way.”
As a female leader, Carole has little time for people who ask how she combines running a business with family life. Men, after all, are rarely asked that question. But she does suggest that the issue of equality – in every sense – is likely to remain high on the industry’s agenda. “There’s still work to do.”
Once again, it’s a question of balance.