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Why Publicis’s CCO sees Le Pub’s growth coming from the world’s least creative corners

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By Sam Bradley, Senior Reporter

April 25, 2023 | 10 min read

Publicis Worldwide’s top creative Bruno Bertelli speaks exclusively on the expansion and evolution of creative agency Le Pub and how AI could shape the future of copywriting.

Bruno Bertelli

Publicis’s Bruno Bertelli discusses the evolution of Le Pub and the threat of AI / Publicis Italy/Guimel Salgado

Bruno Bertelli has a lot on his plate. As Publicis Worldwide’s global chief creative, he’s the face of its approach to modern advertising and one of the most-acclaimed creative directors working in the industry today. This year, he’s the jury president for Cannes Lions’s film category. As ECD and CEO, he leads Publicis’s Italian business from its base in Milan.

And, alongside colleague Cristiana Boccassini, he’s also global chief exec of Le Pub, a premium agency for premium brands such as founding client Heineken, Renault, Netflix, Italian pasta giant Barilla and coffee brand Lavazza.

It’s an agency business that’s expanding the traditional way – the expensive way – by opening physical locations to service global brands in fast-growing markets. But unlike other outfits originally designed around a single, huge client (Le Pub was first established to service Heineken), it’s gone on to build up its own client roster of household names. Despite the early involvement of Publicis chief Arthur Sadoun, Le Pub acts more like an indie.

Running Le Pub

Bertelli acknowledges that this approach makes the agency unusual among industry peers. Though plenty of businesses are still trying to encourage workers back into the office, changes in working norms and client expectations mean more work is done across borders now than ever before. Rival holding company Omnicom, for example, has reduced its real estate portfolio by 35% over the last five years.

In contrast, since its foundation in 2020 Le Pub has opened offices in Brazil, South Africa and China. This spring, it doubled down on expansion in in Mexico and Singapore through a string of key hires.

Physical locations in these markets, Bertelli says, are key to Le Pub’s business model. Premium, broad appeal brands want to implement great creative at a smaller scale than before, he argues. The idea is to mix “global strategy and global positioning” with real understanding of consumer behaviors in each market. “A lot of international brands are now looking for a similar structure – very strategic, very strong global focus but locally relevant.”

“It’s not that common because you have to have a very wide network structure… very few networks are really able to create good work on a local level.” Building out more local and regional offices, he argues, is the “way to connect” with consumers in those parts of the world.

“CPG brands want the same quality on a local level that they have at a global level. But when content, or strategies, get scaled down to a local level, if the quality is not the same then premium perceptions go down.”

Its recent openings in Mexico and Singapore were provoked by client demand, but also by the opportunities emerging in those markets. “Mexico is a very important market now – an expansion market,” he says.

An absence of heavyweight competition in some of those markets also lies behind Le Pub’s expansion targets.“We try and see if there’s a lot of competition or if there is an opportunity to stand up, in terms of creative excellence. South Africa – it used to be a very good market for advertising, in the past. Over 20 years the best talent all moved to different regions and now it’s kind of flat, so for us it’s a good opportunity.”

Heineken has led the way into each of those regions, either through its core brand or subsidiaries such as Tecate or Tiger Beer. Though Heineken remains the agency’s keystone, it’s not got in the way of bringing on new clients – though the agency has to be picky about which brands it takes on, Bertelli says.

“Our first request is creative excellence. It makes no sense for us to work with clients that are not very focused on creativity or quality.”

As a case in point, you could consider the agency’s most recent campaign for Barilla. At its center is a short film following a series of top chefs as they work to create an authentic carbonara recipe that’s halal, kosher and vegan, as well as lactose and gluten-free. It’s not an easy task for a pasta dish made with egg, cheese and pork, but the work keeps the attention on Italian cuisine without bowing to traditional stereotypes about the country.

It’s also a campaign designed to reach audiences at an effective time – when they’re after a new recipe (carbonara is the most searched-for recipe on the web) and considering restocking the cupboards. As well as the film, the team created ‘Open recipes’ a tool that provides ingredient substitutions for classic Italian dishes that don’t map easily to multicultural eating habits or dietary restrictions.

Building creative that can exist across these environments, he says, is a key value add for Le Pub. “It’s easy to provide great creative when you only focus on TV. But when you go after the other touchpoints on the consumer journey, keeping premium positioning isn’t easy.”

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Copy challenge

As both a former copywriter and the boss of a prominent Italian ad agency, Bertelli has been keeping a close eye on the emergence of generative AI. Italy’s ban on ChatGPT could have a big impact on the work of his colleagues – the Dutch talent at Le Pub’s Amsterdam headquarters are able to use the tool, while his Milanese officemates are not – but Bertelli says it’s unlikely to stand for long.

“It’s typical of Italy. I think they will cancel it; it’s impossible to keep,” he says. The tech, though, will impact both the agency business and the business of copywriting – both posing a potential threat to agencies like Le Pub, which focus on “creative excellence”, and a means of rounding off its client proposition.

“For agencies based on quality, speed is a big challenge. Today you can’t justify taking six months for a campaign. If you’re not topical you’re not relevant, so you need to become faster. Agencies will need AI much more than brands or companies,” he predicts.

“If you consider how much faster content is consumed and burned, it’s impossible to keep up. In that sense, AI can help us… we’ll be able to create reactive, topical, personalized campaigns in a way that was not possible two or three years ago.”

Its impact on creative copy – and the people who provide it for a living – could provide more of an opportunity for strategic thinkers. “In the future, copywriting could become more strategic. In the 70s and 80s, some of those beautiful copy lines were like strategies all by themselves.”

Brands and the talent behind them that can provide “very differentiated” approaches have nothing to worry about, he says. “I think more experienced copywriters will keep their jobs; you won’t need young copywriters writing cool or funny lines just to be appealing. It’s about putting in one line or one sentence, an entire brand strategy.

“Being able to understand what is Heineken, what is Coke, what is Nike – and what isn’t – is the key thing.”

Publicis Groupe Barilla Agencies

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