The Belgian boss at the end of the world - Trends-Tendances sur PC

The Belgian boss at the end of the world – Trends-Tendances sur PC

Born in Brussels, Sébastien Desclée led Publicis Belgium in the early 2010s, before opting for an international career. He now lives in Auckland where he has been CEO of FCB New Zealand for a year, a network of communication agencies supported by 160 employees.

On the other side of the globe, New Zealand stretches over nearly 270,000 km2, a territory nine times larger than Belgium, but which has “only” 5 million inhabitants. This goes to show the importance of the role that nature plays in this distant land which notably served as the setting for the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

On the other side of the globe, New Zealand stretches over nearly 270,000 km2, a territory nine times larger than Belgium, but which has “only” 5 million inhabitants. This goes to show the importance of the role that nature plays in this distant land which notably served as the setting for the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings. This relationship to nature is very present in the Maori culture which shaped the country before the first Europeans landed there in 1642 and occupied the two main islands since the end of the 18th century. Since this colonization and the independence of New Zealand proclaimed in 1840, the Maoris only represent 17% of the population, but fundamental work has taken place in recent years to reintegrate all their values ​​and their culture, not only in New Zealand society but also in the business world. A privileged witness to this transformation, Sébastien Desclée settled in Wellington, the country’s capital, a year ago, before joining Auckland, the economic flagship of the archipelago, in the north of the territory. This 45-year-old Belgian has indeed become the CEO of FCB New Zealand, a network of communication agencies which belongs to Interpublic Group, one of the four “Big Four” in the world of advertising (along with WPP, Omnicom and Publicis ). “The first thing to do when you arrive in a country that you do not know is to try to understand it a little bit and to measure the stakes, explains Sébastien Desclée. Me, I arrived as a little Belgian to bring my outside perspective on business and advertising trends. But in New Zealand there is a real challenge of transforming the culture within companies to better integrate these Maori notions and values. In this framework, I did a lot of work with my teams to review the business in a different way, with a more inclusive organization in relation to minorities, Maori and others. To embrace this societal shift in New Zealand, Sébastien Desclée immersed himself in Maori culture, and more specifically in the book Aroha written by Dr. Hinemoa Elder. The CEO of FCB New Zealand even invited the author of this collection of 52 Maori thoughts to his agency to present the book to his teams and to some of his clients, just to change mentalities. But that’s not all. The Belgian boss has also taken it into his head to learn Maori to set an example and speed up the process of inclusion in the company. “Today I try to introduce myself in Maori, confides Sébastien Desclée, and it’s quite interesting because the Maoris, who have a very strong relationship with nature, always introduce themselves by saying their name, of course, but also what is their river and what is their mountain. It is a way of telling their story and it is also, for me, an opening and a journey that are very intense.” When he meets Maoris, Sébastien Desclée therefore presents himself with Annapurna as a mountain (“I had the chance to go, when I was younger, to the Himalayas, to the base camp of this massif”, he specifies) and, more modestly, with the Molignée as a river. This small stream flows through the Maredsous region where the boss of FCB New Zealand owns the family farm and where he likes to land when he returns to Belgium. Like the Maoris, Sébastien Desclée admits feeling very close to nature, but this choice of the Molignée river is also a reference to the region where one of his ancestors founded the abbey of Maredsous just 150 years ago. But why did this forty-year-old, who was the CEO of the Publicis Belgium agency in the early 2010s, suddenly leave the flat country to settle and work on the other side of the planet? “As my daughter kindly told me when the opportunity arose to take over the management of FCB New Zealand: ‘Dad, it’s now or never!’,” says this father of three teenagers. Of course, it was a hell of a bet because we were still in the midst of a health crisis, but we decided to take it up as a family. However, the world of advertising was not Sébastien Desclée’s first choice. Initially, the young man dreamed of being a farmer, but his studies as an agricultural engineer did not prove to be really conclusive. He then decided to change course and successfully embraced management sciences. A graduate of the Louvain School of Management in 2000, Sébastien Desclée took his first professional steps at Procter & Gamble (the American multinational specializing in everyday consumer goods), first as a financial analyst and then in the marketing department. The advertising shift took place in 2007. He was then poached by the Publicis group to revitalize the Belgian subsidiary of the French advertising giant. On the strength of his good results, he became CEO of Publicis Belgium in 2011 and, for two years, garnered fine national and international awards, in particular thanks to the creativity of the Antwerp agency Duval Guillaume, which he also manages within the Belgian entity with a total of 150 employees. In 2013, it was a dramatic turn of events: Sébastien Desclée left Publicis Belgique to set off for new geographical horizons. Appointed president international markets of the vast network of FCB agencies, he then supervised around twenty communication offices deployed in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. He held this nomadic position for six years and discovered the New Zealand market for the first time in 2014. Five years later, the Publicis group made another eye of him and this time offered him the position of global lead client to manage a few large accounts at the international level, for example that of the Heineken brand. The adventure only lasted two years, the time that his former employer FCB challenged him to go to New Zealand to take on the role of CEO of this local branch. “When we landed there in August 2021 the country was still in lockdown and we first had to be isolated in Wellington in a house which thankfully was by the sea. It was surreal but extraordinary at the same time because the fact of finding yourself like that alone, with wife and children, in a new country on the other side of the world, without being able to move too much, was certainly difficult but also very intense. As the weeks went by, the situation became unstuck and Sébastien Desclée was able to give up teleworking and daily family surfing to go to Auckland and the headquarters of FCB New Zealand. With its 160 employees, the agency provides its communication and marketing services for several major local brands (Air New Zealand, the Pak’n’Save distribution brand, the energy supplier Mercury, etc.) , both in advertising creation, media buying and new technologies. But that is not enough for the Belgian boss, who was honored last spring with the title of global international partner at FCB, an additional function which consists of “animating the relationship between the network of agencies and all its franchised countries, i.e. a sixty in total”, according to Sébastien Desclée. This double hat makes him travel again to share the latest advertising trends and new communication tools with the various offices. A “panoramic” function which allows him not only to compare the different markets, but also to measure the rate of creativity of certain countries such as Belgium and New Zealand, which he knows very well: “The New Zealanders, like the Belgians, are very strong in terms of advertising creativity, observes Sébastien Desclée.There is also a map of the world which was drawn by an advertiser and where the size of each country has been resized according to the awards won in the major festivals of the advertising, and therefore creativity per capita. On this map, Belgium and New Zealand are huge, while other big nations like the United States, France or Great Britain suddenly appear very small.” Today, at 45, Sébastien Desclée is far from having finished his journey in the world of advertising. But his last two decades spent in communications and marketing push him to draw an initial assessment of the evolution of the profession despite everything: “It is clear that the profession has become very complex, both in terms of cycles, supports, the rhythm and the way in which we must now bounce back, concludes the CEO of FCB New Zealand. Before, it was relatively simple: we had gone around with a TV, radio, print and display campaign. Today, with budgets that have not increased, we must create 1,000 times more content to make many more personalized interactions.Technological components are strongly present but, above all, brands must now play a much more fundamental role in social, societal and environmental transition. They must nurture their raison d’être in themes that are relevant to what they really do and to what consumers expect of them. Today, it is f as long as there is absolute consistency between the message they convey as brands and everything behind it.” 22,000 kilometers from his native land, the learning of Maori by Sébastien Desclée is obviously part of this coherence that he defends and that he willingly advocates within FCB New Zealand.


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