Learning from the best: Erik Bertin
Erik Bertin is not only the general deputy manager at MRM // McCann Worldwide but also teaches semiotics at SciencesPo and Université Lyon II. I met him in a Café on Boulevard St Germain to talk about the particularities of working between two different worlds, the key encounters he had on this path and the evolution of communications’ role in society.
Anna: How comes you're teaching at SciencesPo? What brings you here?
Erik Bertin: Since I have pursued a double path throughout my career, working as a strategic planner at various agencies and teaching semiotics at universities, I have a quite large network and it was basically through this network that I happened to be in the position of teaching semiotics at EDC.
A: Has it been a conscious decision that you've chosen this double path? What are the challenges and the benefits of living between the two worlds of academics and business?
EB: It was not only a conscious but also a very early decision. From the very beginning of my professional life I had the intention and the will to make a link between, let's say, the theoretic world and the business world of communication. I tried from the beginning, but back then I didn't necessarily had all the skills and resources to do so. However, I had some very influential encounters, which helped me and pushed me to really make a step further. The key encounter for me was the one with Jean-Marie Floch in 1995. I started to attend his seminars on visual and applied semiotics and we've build up a relationship where he pushed me to learn, try to use semiotics in the business world, to teach, to publish, to hold presentations. For me it was the starting point of this double journey. I decided to continue on this double path and basically I couldn't do without it anymore since I cannot consider the business of communications as a goal in itself. I cannot do so for many reasons: personal reasons, ethical reasons but mainly because the discipline of communications is not only raising business questions but is closely related to issues and trends in society. For me it is essential to have an angle on communication, which is also a social sciences perspective, to question communication in order to raise critical issues and try to be able to reflect on these issues. Therefore, to teach at SciencesPo, to be involved in research groups is like a bubble of fresh air that I need not only for my personal satisfaction but also in order to receive fresh input for my work. It works also the other way around: when I'm teaching I introduce my insights from the world of business to my students.
A: Sounds like a productive synergy!
EB: Exactly, it is a productive synergy, but it can be also very difficult to build a bridge between those two worlds. It is a demanding task. Not only in terms of time-keeping and agenda but also because those two worlds are so different. Their temporalities are different, the goals are different, the values are different, the people working in each of the two environments are different and basically they never talk to each other except at special institutions like SciencesPo. It is very difficult to set up a dialogue between these two worlds. Especially in France they can hardly work together. The business world of communication does not leverage the findings from the scientific community and the academic world knows the business world of communication in a very limited way. They hardly manage to understand how the other world works, what is at stake, which processes are important.
A: You're currently working at MRM // McCann, could you maybe describe in a couple of sentences what you're responsible for in your position?
EB: I am deputy general manager in charge of strategy, which means that I have kind of a transversal role at the agency, being member of the board but also part of the management and of course I have a vertical responsibility when it comes to strategic work. The tasks of a strategic planner are very diverse: from competitive analysis and strategic reflection on a brand to writing the creative brief, preparing strategic recommendations for clients, trend watching and searching expertise on digital and retail innovation to CRM (customer relationship marketing). At MRM // McCann we have a variety of skills concentrated since it is an activation agency. Activation agency means that you try to change behaviors of customers. This is why MRM // McCann has a strong focus on CRM. We try to address each step of the customer journey. It can be through digital activation, social media, point of sale activity, through royalty and relational programs. Thereby it is not necessarily about changing long-term behaviors but rather means to activate people, to change how they react to propositions: commercial propositions, social media propositions, to make people purchase, recommend, talk to each other.
A: How does your semiotic background help you here?
EB: In this kind of work I cannot use semiotics on an everyday basis. Since our work is activation oriented, the pace at the agency is very fast. We mostly work with clients on a project basis, while the semiotic work is rather long-term oriented. However, we've developed a methodology, which is called dataset mindset. It helps us to capture the customers as a whole and try to gain a deep understanding of people and what matters to them, their attitudes and behaviors. We gather data through data analytics (social data, purchase data) but try to question it, since data alone cannot answer the question of 'why'. The data we gather can only tell us what it is someone is doing, when, how. To complement this set of data we add what we call the data mindset. We try to answer the question of "why" by analyzing the data and conducting qualitative interviews with clients corresponding to this dataset. It s a very qualitative approach but we don't necessarily use semiotics. Therefore, at this agency I am hardly using semiotics as a tool of analysis but rather as a frame of thinking. Semiotics helps one to organize the material, to identify which categories are at stake.
A: Who are the people you're working with on an everyday basis? Are they strategic planners, creatives, clients?
EB: I would say all of them. I have a team of strategic planners reporting directly to me, I also often work with the creative department. I'm not involved in all projects, but in every project where creative development is incorporated I stand in a relationship with creatives, either directly or via my planners. The work with accounters is another key element of my job and of course I am also standing in a relation with clients.
A: What are you favorite campaigns you've co-developed so far at MRM // McCann?
EB: We've developed a nice digital dispositif for Peugeot, which was about digital activation. We created three different environments in the style of sci-fi cities, each of them having a very specific road environment where the car was supposed to take advantage of the environment. Recently we've developed a europe-wide relationship program for the luxury cosmetics brand LaPrairie and we've been working for several years now for Nespresso.
A: I was intrigued by the tagline of McCann "Truth well told" since we're not used to think of advertising in terms of truth. Could you explain to me your personal vision related to this tagline? How do you perceive the social role of communications and advertising companies?
EB: This is a good question. Actually it has been the initial tagline of McCann and I think when you read the whole logo you already have the answer since it says: "McCann: Truth well told, since 1912". It refers to the conditions of reception of this tagline at the time it was developed. At the very beginning, advertising was supposed to be neutral information given about a product. It was considered to be only mediation and it was supposed to represent the truth or at least the reality of the product. The tagline describes a vision of the relation of advertising to reality, which is a very interesting topic. How does advertising deal with reality? The initial purpose of advertising is that it has to deal between a referent, which is the product, the service, the company or the organization and reality as such. Therefore, the tagline of McCann refers to a very specific stage in advertising history where according to consumer's expectations advertising was supposed to represent the reality of the proposition, of the product. Today, from a corporate standpoint, McCann has revisited truth since we talk about truth by pointing to the fact that in every brand there is a truth. When we think of truth in terms of insights, we can say that an insight is a kind of universal truth. From this point of view truth has definitely a certain relevancy but I think from the point of view of society this tagline can be quite misleading. As you’ve said, advertising is not perceived by the society as a world where truth is a relevant value. It brings us to the question of the place advertising has in our society today. We need to consider that now advertising builds only one facet of communications. Advertising emerged during a time where brands were the owner of the communication space and communication was considered to be a transmission from top to the bottom. Today communication takes place on multiple levels and is much more intricate, it is now about socializing, gaming, providing information, service etc. The sphere of communication is now like an immense network of topics.
A: I feel like nowadays the notion of authenticity gains again on importance in the world of communications. By being a player in this multidimensional communication space brands often do not have the choice but to be transparent and honest, since they feel that they cannot feed the consumer with wrong information or artificial campaigns anymore.
EB: That's right. I think one of the major challenges for brands today is to give up the control. They are used to grow in a world where they could control the communication space, control the operations and set up some kind of artificial existence built on images. Today they have to deal with interaction, they have to learn how to read people and they have to get used to handle mistakes and to admit when they have done something wrong. They were used to produce promises of an ideal world and now it is a real challenge for them to deal with a level of real human existence where you cannot always perform. In communications, you have to find a way to reframe even underperformance or dysfunction in a positive way.
A: Nowadays for many companies the digital transition seems to be a struggle. What do you think about the digital transformation? What other key challenges related to the business of communication do you perceive nowadays?
EB: Succeeding in terms of digital transformation is certainly a key challenge for brands today. It is a challenge to move from using the digital as a tool to digital life. It requires a change of the mindset as a whole. This means for instance that you cannot behave the same way in the social sphere as you're used to do in the marketing sphere. It is not about mastering tools anymore, it is about accepting to be a guest as a brand. Companies need to realize that digital is not a tool but is recomposing the way they work. Here again the notion of control is central. Another challenge, which I perceive, is of how to continue being an actor in the communication world without being intrusive. The amount of communications we're exposed to every day is rising and it does not only come from the marketing industry but also from the social world that is not being controlled by brands. If you're for example pursuing relationship or loyalty programs you have to stay in touch with your customers but if you send them emails every couple of days and those emails are only joining the other solicitations the customer receives, you're only contributing to the intrusion. Therefore, the question is how to set up and maintain a relevant relationship with the customers, how to manage to be present and relevant at the same time. Being present alone is not a goal in itself: You have to build a valuable presence.
A: When you take into account what you’ve learned on your professional path, what would be your advice to your 20-years-old ego?
EB: I think it would be to find a specific angle in what you're doing, to find out why you are interested in communications. It is about trying to find a way to be in communications and to develop a critical point of view. Another advice would be to get acquainted with technology. You have to know about technological developments when you're in communications nowadays and you have to look at the technological dimension as a key dimension not only for communications but also for people in general.
P.S.: Experience Erik Bertin balancing between semiotics and branding when he talks about how brands use color *here