It is innovations that build a competitive advantage
Alain, please tell us about how your work started. Where did you get your experience from?
My friend and I studied law. After a few months at university, you just get bored. That’s why we started thinking – what to do with ourselves? How to creatively use our free time? We started then organizing small events and parties. It’s worth mentioning that some of them were sponsored by various companies, such as L’Oréal. After one of such events, it was L’Oréal that asked us if we had resources and people that we could engage to support the brand in direct actions – called at that time “street marketing”. Of course, we didn’t have such resources. But I said: “sure, we do! We’re in!”
It turned out that it was an enormous – considering our experience at the time – undertaking. We had to provide the client with over 350 hostesses who were to work in shopping malls for eight consecutive weekends. And so L’Oréal became one of the first big clients in our portfolio. We signed a contract and decided with my friend to set up a company. We called ourselves “Students Dynam”. Not very creative, right (laughs)?
But then, we seriously started promoting this type of marketing. We were growing at an incredible pace. In the meantime, we graduated from the university. At the end of our studies, there were 25 people who were employed full-time, and thousands of part-time young people who promoted brands such as Bacardi Martini, Procter&Gamble, Coca Cola and L’Oréal on the streets in the Benelux region. The advertising industry called it “field marketing”. In 1992, we were taken over by the American group Omnicom, the largest advertising group in the world. They asked us to help build a field marketing network across Europe (CPM International). That’s when I started traveling. My business partner dealt with the internal organization and management, while I took care of the customer development and external organization. This is how I attracted brands such as HP American Express, Mars, Disney, etc.
So you were an innovator in field marketing? The reason you became a part of this company was because of customer demand… and the entrepreneur’s spirit!
In life, you often are faced with “yes” or “no” choices. I chose “yes” and thanks to that our business idea simply went off. From the beginning, we focused on an innovative approach. We kind of “disrupted the market” with new operating practices, technologies, and business models. We decided to complete our law studies as well as the Junior MBA in Boston (Babson) and then built a network covering more than 20 markets in Europe under the DAS and Omnicom umbrella. However, despite the great opportunity that stood before us at that moment, we felt that Omnicom controlled us too much, that we were spending too much time dealing with politics and reporting. Or maybe our entrepreneurial spirit was looking for something new? New challenges? Who knows…
Finally, we decided to leave and in 1996 we created our first web agency, Virtuology. The Internet was only just beginning, and this crazy new sector caught our attention. We started to develop or acquire agencies in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. We were growing for 3-4 years and managed to survive the first big economic crisis and the dot-com bubble of 2000.
How did you manage to survive?
Bootstrapping and reacting. When the “economic” tsunami hits, all you need to do in order to survive is to react quickly and bootstrap your organization – as it was the case with COVID-19. We had to react immediately. We cut costs as quickly as possible, reduced the weight of the ship, considered how we could survive and look for new, innovative, breakthrough solutions. In 2003, after surviving the first economic crisis, we decided to take over an advertising agency much larger than us, called “Tagora”. This is how we created one of the first 360° advertising conglomerates in Belgium. Later we sold it to another advertising group (WPP).
How did you do it?
Long and delicate negotiations. We knew digitization was the future. “You are a traditional advertising agency, if you don’t change you will die. So let’s work together, but we take control.” And then, over the years, we transformed this organization. It was quite a challenge as it employed 400 people in Brussels and Paris. We sold it to WPP (second largest advertising group in the world) in 2007. It was also around that time when my partner and I decided to go different paths. We had worked together for over 20 years, spending together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are still good friends and today, in the year 2021, we are working together again. In 2007, I dreamed of opening the first Incubator in Brussels. We called it “The Egg” and to this day, it is the oldest and largest incubator platform in Brussels. It is an old warehouse with an area of 15,000 sq m, which we have revitalized through co-working. Our incubator serves as a place for meetings, exhibitions, events and brainstorming. It was hard for me to combine it all with the rest of my responsibilities. So I had to make a decision and give up my other activities and focus on “The Egg”. Moreover, I led the industry association dealing with online advertising in Belgium since 2001 and together with other countries we had the idea of creating IAB Europe, whose main mission was to lobby the European Commission on privacy, data protection, digital advertising ethics and legal issues that arose in Brussels institutions. It was also the second time for me that I connected my work with Poland. In the 90s, I was organizing street marketing and sample distribution for Procter&Gamble. Today, together with IAB Europe, we have the ambition to open IAB in 28 countries. IAB Polska was established in Warsaw. I cooperated with very nice Poles, such as Jarek Sobolewski, Marta Klepka, Filip Pieczyński and Piotr Kowalczyk. We have opened over 30 IABs in all EU countries and built the digital advertising industry as pioneers! See how our industry has developed!
I have traveled a lot, discovering Europe, like nobody else. These years were a challenge for my family as I mostly spent my life in planes, workshops and meetings. However, I know that the short time that I fully devoted to children helped them grow up and become responsible wise people.
Good job. I have also started to develop my own skills and competences more, specializing in creativity, innovation and digital production, but also in coaching or talent training.
For several private reasons, I decided to quit IAB and “The Egg” in 2013 and embark on new challenges. The next step was related to Saint-Gobain. It is a large French company dealing in glass, building materials and cars. They visited The Egg and asked me, “Alain, can you help us change the organizational culture in about 15 factories around the world?”. So I visited many factories, but also many creative and innovative places around the world to understand how we can change their culture. I advised them to create “fab labs” inside their factory, which could be a kind of playground where we could brainstorm, invent, prototype, co-create and experiment with new ways of working or tools. We met with Professor Neil Gerhsenfeld from MIT in Boston and explained to him our approach, which he accepted and supported.
Tools and methodology such as “design thinking”?
In the factories, we opened laboratories with 3D printers, metal printers, 3D scans, drones, robots, sensors, work tables, posters, and we applied agile methodologies such as scrum or design thinking. I was fulfilling this mission for about 4 years traveling to Korea, Japan, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany… and Poland again, because they had a factory in Koło.
In 2017, my former business partner contacted me and said: “Alain, let’s start a new chapter in our business relations”. The group has grown and now has 300 people working in offices in Paris, Brussels, Montreal, Tangier, Shanghai and Antananarivo – we are running it together, as we have so many young people and we need experienced mentors and trainers. I run the Virtuology Academy as part of a group, helping our colleagues develop hard and soft skills, but we also train executives and managers in several directions: Leadership, Innovation and Digital Transformation. Our clients include companies such as BNP Paribas, Saint-Gobain, Decathlon, Axa and Engie.
What are your activities and projects based on? How do you combine them?
I think it’s just a matter of making things real! If you dream of something like I dreamed of an incubator in Brussels, just share your idea with others and try to make it a reality! I explained this project to the municipality of Brusseld and they didn’t even understand what incubation meant. They told me that if I wanted to build it, I could do it, but they didn’t have money to revitalize the building. So I had to find the money myself. I needed EUR 10 million. In 2007-2008, when the banking crisis hit Europe… People told me I would never find the funds. But I was convinced, I had a vision, and I knew I was right. And guess what, I found EUR 10 million. And it wasn’t my money. I found friends, sponsors and organizations that put EUR 10 million on the table. We renovated the building, created an incubator and have over 140,000 visitors a year who come to us to organize exhibitions, cultural events, parties, hackathons, seminars, exhibitions, events etc. We currently have 35 incubation centers around Brussels. Therefore, dream boldly about the impossible and make the impossible possible. Can you build a business while you are waiting? No. Just do it. I tell a lot of people in Europe to start their own business because there is an ecosystem that supports them. When I started out in 1984, there were no incubations, mentors, business angels, coaches, regional funds, incubation centers, coworking spaces, but now there is everything and professional tools are available to guide you. Take advantage of Design Thinking to become customer-oriented. Use Business Model Canvas to test several business hypotheses and turn your idea into a business. Use Pimento Map to assess the maturity of your business model and get to the market as a start-up connecting your potential customers with an MVP (early stage product). And never forget that being successful is not easy and failing is part of the journey. Try to be successful with good tools, the help of your network and ecosystem.
Do you think this is standard? Do companies plan their development path?
You need a plan and good tools. Even large companies are starting to use Design Thinking, Business Model Canvas, or Pimento Map – just like start-ups, they want to use efficient tools (for their internal innovations). It must not be forgotten that only 25% of innovative products and start-ups will survive the first 5 years…
Does Pimento Map help you design your own path?
Absolutely. It is a tool that we created 6 years ago to help project implementers, entrepreneurs and creators, but also their trainers, mentors and managers. It is used by over 50,000 people, companies and universities around the world. It has been translated into 9 languages. I really help project owners or beginners. That is one of the stages of their journey: design thinking, business model canvas, pimento map and lean start up are the five steps leading to the success of your innovative project or start-up.
Design Thinking encourages you to focus on the customer when creating your design. Who is your client and what are you trying to solve or gain? Business Model Canvas helps you see if your idea can potentially turn into a business. Pimento Map enables you to assess maturity with 18 questions and provides several potential answers depending on the development stage and maturity of your project. When your Maturity Score is high enough, you should get to the market as soon as possible and use the lean start up approach to further develop your product, service or solution with your potential customer. (The interview continues in Part 2).
ALAIN HEUREUX – trainer of creativity, innovation and change. Expert in the 2030 High-Tech Skills working group within the European Commission, member of the MBA PG Program Board, leader of Brussels Creative and Creative Ring. Supports and teaches start-up leaders and large corporations at Virtuology Academy. (We would like to thank CONCORDIA DESIGN for the opportunity to conduct this interview)