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So You Want My Job? VMLY&R’s Laurent Simon on why advertising was a foreign country

Laurent Simon, the chief creative officer of VMLY&R

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting. This week we talk to Laurent Simon, the chief creative officer of VMLY&R.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was asked the same question when I finished primary school. The reason why I still remember is because it was – for whatever obscure reason – a yearly tradition to print the pupils’ wishes in the school’s newspaper.

Any parent with too much time on their hands could delightfully roam through the list and learn that Paul wanted to be a lawyer, Sarah was dreaming of being a vet, Marc a rugby player... until you got to my answer at the bottom of the page: “When I grow up, I want to be a winemaker, a journalist, a graphic novelist, a scientist, an explorer, an architect and a fighter pilot.”

Make no mistake, I was by no means a renaissance child – more of an enfant terrible who found everything fascinating. To this day, learning brings me more joy than most things on the planet.

Eventually, I realized that society only requires you to take on one job and I settled for this one: chief creative officer. At face value, there may not be many parallels with my shattered childhood dream but perhaps, as a coping mechanism, I like to think there are some. To have a career as a creative in advertising you need to be able to nurture, write, draw, question, venture, plan and make decisions with many variables in mind. Oh, and post-rationalize.

How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.

I got into the industry like most budding creatives did. I joined the Watford course, which is led by Tony Cullingham. Towards the end of the second semester, I teamed up with Aidan, who would go on to be my creative partner for more than a decade.

Looking back, the thing that set us apart was that we enjoyed being responsible for the very thing we were less good at. I wanted to be a copywriter but couldn’t really write, let alone speak English. I vividly remember going to the library whenever I could during breaks to translate the lessons. I spent the first few months not really understanding what my tutor and fellow students were on about. So, by default, I became an art director.

Aidan, on the other hand, wanted to be an art director. But that role was already taken so he resigned to being the copywriter. I can’t imagine how daunting that must have been, particularly as he’s dyslexic. But he never complained – as most people know, people with dyslexia have a real talent with words, and he ended up being a great quill.

That forced switch made us more rounded than other student teams. Our real fortune was that we joined the marketplace at a time when the economy was booming. In fact, Diageo had set up a scheme to award the best team in the country with a paid year-long contract at its three agencies: AMV BBDO, BBH and Mother. These 12 months taught us so much in terms of culture, ways of working, networking and range of clients.

I wouldn’t do anything differently. Both my mistakes and successes have shaped who I am. If I could go back in time and chat to my younger self, I would say, “It’s all worth it.” Even the painfully daft mistakes.

OK, so what do you do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

I never ever speak about what I do with taxi drivers. I must be a terrible customer as keep myself to myself and blissfully daydream, looking out of the window instead. In fact, I barely say a word when I go to the hairdresser or the local grocer, either. A smile is all my body is willing to give before retreating to whatever my brain has chosen to harbor at that time. If you haven’t clocked by now, I’m not what one calls a natural extrovert. And I don’t think being a Libra, Gemini rising, has anything to do with that.

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

They don’t but, God, do they care. I’m fortunate enough to still have them both and still be the recipient of their unconditional love. They have always tried so hard to be supportive. They’d call my first agency BBHO, for instance, or ask, “How’s that Jean Louis project going?” It got a lot easier when I worked at the BBC. That one, they got down to a T. They don’t attempt to say the name of my current agency, it might be a longer journey to get that one right.

I don’t think they’ll ever fully understand what I do for a living and why I chose to emigrate to London for it. You’ve got to understand that in my family, you’re either a winemaker or a professor. Advertising is a foreign country that you know exists but have no reason to go and visit.

Books and wine in the South of France are more familiar to them than pitches and PPMs in non-EU Blighty. I think it took them five years before they first came to visit me – that was probably the time it took them to realize it wasn’t a ‘phase’. And even then, they came over so we could go and see France play at Twickenham. Mind you, they’ve since made up for it and visited me countless times. I’m just ignoring the fact that 99% of their journeys have occurred since I’ve given them a granddaughter.

What do you love most about your job?

Easy. The fact that it lights up so many areas of your brain.

What other profession makes you play on a daily basis with business, strategy, ideas, design, filmmaking, sociology, psychology, behaviors, trends, innovation and technology? And all at the speed of culture.

What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?

Creative industries have always been fiercely competitive and, sadly, there are now more people out there than there’s ever been. At all levels. Which means that being the best among a few is not enough anymore. You need to be the best among many.

So, my advice would be: follow the money. And no, not just the salary, but where clients are moving their budgets. New assignments come with new roles. Read about pitches, keep an eye on new-business rankings, keep track of who’s won what and reach out to them. Joining an agency that wins is also a great cultural backdrop for new talent. Not only are you surrounded by people who are in a positive and front-footed mindset, but you will also learn first-hand what it takes to win and make great work.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?

Never take no for an answer.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

Listen to everyone and everything – including yourself. To create the best work and build the best teams, everyone’s voice matters.

Last week Future’s Sam Robson was in the hot seat.

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