Meet: Stephane Mailhiot, VP of Strategy at Havas Montreal

After starting out in journalism, Stephane Mailhiot made the jump to advertising, working at BBDO and Ig2. Now at Havas Montreal, he leads a team of planners in constantly thinking about the strategic implications of brand discussions. He also has a fun side hustle talking marketing and culture on public radio.

The one thing that has never changed: Stephane is steadfastly devoted to communicating complex ideas—and helping people understand why they matter.

Below, he breaks down things like the notion of trust in the context of data collection, whether augmented reality has truly arrived (spoiler alert: Stephane says yes), and a future when brands finally stop showing us ads for products we already own.

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The Mag: What do you do at Havas?

SM: As the lead of strategy here in Montreal, I’m overseeing the strategic aspect of all that we do. I’m working with the planners, making sure that we’re presenting ideas, creative, and tactics that are aligned with brand positioning.

However, I also dedicate some time to thought leadership. Every Thursday at 9 a.m., I co-host a 20-minute segment of a public radio show called “Bêtes de pub.” We talk about all of the hot topics in advertising from the week and their implications for consumers. We bring it down to the ground and help people understand what’s going on. As a speaker for Infopresse, I’m also taking general trends and bringing those to marketers. And as a former journalist, I talk a lot about political communications as well.


The Mag: What’s something in marketing today that’s really exciting you?

SM: I think that hyper-personalization is the most interesting new thing around. And not “new” in the sense that it wasn’t here two years ago, but in the sense that it’s now reaching a vast majority of consumers, rather than just early adopters. It’s here. Every channel can be personalized. The only hold-out may be television—if you’re not one of those people who are cord-cutting and already experiencing the connected TV that we’ve been talking about for years.

Part of hyper-personalization is the idea that when I’m watching TV with my wife, we’ll see different ads than when I’m watching it alone. And that when I’m on a website doing a transaction, I’ll get a totally different interface than someone else based on my past purchases and navigation. I’m all for not having to watch an ad that just doesn’t interest me for a product that I don’t care about. That would make my life better. Not a lot better—but at least a little.

I want clothing companies to remember that I own a particular shirt and not show me ads for it over and over again. I already have that—I bought it from you! All of our media channels should be hyper-personalized. Why is my TV guide in numerical order and not based on my interests? When I get to the guide, why do I not see my favorite channel or program first?

So when I say personalization, it’s not about having your name on the right corner of a website when you visit or A/B testing banner ads. It’s about creating a better experience by taking into consideration an individual’s view of the world.


The Mag: In order to hyper-personalize, brands need data. And data collection requires trust. How can brands best gain consumer trust in this context?

SM: By letting consumers understand what we know and why we know it. And collecting only the data we need. We talk a lot about Big Data. So, it’s, “Grab all the data that you can.” And then out of this, we’ll raise an insight down the road, maybe. So: “Why are you collecting this data?” “Because I can.” And that scares a lot of consumers.

You need to explain what data you’re collecting, why you’re collecting it, and what you’ll do it with—being fully transparent. And maybe it’s an incremental process. When I subscribe to your website, it might not be the best moment to ask how much money I make and how many kids I have. Just subscribe me with an email and a password, and then go from there. It’s like dating. Don’t get to the serious stuff too quickly. Take time to know each other. As the relationship improves, I’ll begin to believe you won’t do evil things with my data, and then I’ll give you even more information about me because trust has been established. The problem is when we want to know everything about everyone on day one. It’s not working. I think people are skeptical.

And brands should give people control over what they know about them. When I go on Amazon, it is a good thing that I can say, “Hey, don’t use this book to offer recommendations because it was a gift.” When you share control with consumers, they’re less scared of you.

Think about Waze. If I knew that an app knew everywhere that I went, I would be kind of scared. But if I get an advantage out of participating—if my trips to the cottage are easier—then I’ll be more comfortable with what they’re doing. It’s sharing advantages. I provide data, you provide a service. But the day I know that Waze takes me on a longer trip to my cottage because they want me to pass in front of a Home Depot, that will be the day we have a problem of trust.


The Mag: What about VR and AR? Are they here yet?

SM: The good news is that everyone has this technology in their pocket now. We now know, thanks to Pokemon Go, that we don’t need a headset or goggles to be part of this experience.

Will it improve? Yes, for sure. But Pokemon Go was the introduction for many, many people. It’s been years that we’ve tried to do augmented reality—put your phone on this ad and you’ll see all the features of this car. But now, people have another reason than just, “I want to sell you something” to be on this technology.

So I think it’s here. And it will change a lot of experience-based consumption—including museums and retail stores. Again, Amazon is leading in this space. They’re trying to do a real store where there are no prices on anything and you need an app to discover them. That’s interesting because it brings a level of hyper-personalization. You can have a dynamic pricing approach based on what someone has bought at what price. We could be shopping at the same GAP store, and just because I’m a regular buyer of something, I’ll get a discount and you wouldn’t. Or maybe I’m looking at female dresses on December 20th, and they know I’ll buy something even at full price, so I don’t get the discount.

It’s not augmented reality in the sense of video, but it’s all the same technology. Now that people understand that they can use their phone camera to discover another aspect of the world, it will take off very quickly. I put a lot of weight on “reality.” It’s not in the virtual space, it’s in the real space. I think it’s more interesting to push stuff in reality to create better experiences.


The Mag: What’s something on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet?

SM: Most of my bucket list is filled with travel destinations. I know I will go to Patagonia before I’m 40. (It’s amazing—when you put a date beside the thing, it becomes a plan.) There are a lot of things on my list, though. I want to make a dent in the universe, but I’m not yet sure what it will be. I haven’t been struck by a cause yet, but I know one day it will happen. There will be something that will make me think it’s time for me to get involved deeply into doing good.