AEXELE’s Co-Founder and CCO, Hubert Renucci, shares his founder story, perspectives about the advertising market and the role of innovation and creativity at AEXELE.
Based in Shanghai, AEXELE is a boutique creative agency focused on providing brands with strategy, marketing, and communications solutions. It covers everything a company may need, from brand strategy to communications development and content publishing.
Hubert Renucci, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of AEXELE, leads a core team of creatives, strategists, and accounts to provide communications solutions to help brands stay relevant and authentic within an ever-connected age.
Can you please describe your position and main responsibilities in a few words?
I oversee the agency’s creative and strategic outputs; and in tandem with my business partner, the growth of our business.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your role?
More so than my role, people often view our line of work as a mindless exercise in creativity. While there are times for having fun and letting our imaginations run wild, effective creative work always involves a certain degree of strategic thinking, including contextualization of goals and objectives, simplification and articulation of big esoteric concepts and identification and recommendation of artistic approaches.
This often leads to a constant back and forth between creative confidence and self-doubt. But the uncertainty is a necessary component to the imperfection-yet-ingenuity of what we do, making this line of work so compelling to me.
Which was the toughest challenge you faced when growing AEXELE?
AEXELE began with digital production services. As we quickly started evolving towards broader creative and strategic communications work, a big challenge we faced stemmed from capitalization of our strategic and operational expertise within the digital-centric framework we were known for. Especially while elevating our dialogue with brands towards more holistic creative and strategic integration and longer-term brand growth – against standard market understandings and practices. And sometimes, our “digitally-centric” label is misconstrued altogether as a counter to our fundamental intentions: which is to help brands build effective communications within a growing digitized environment and culture.
This ambition is also reflected in our approach to business development. As an independent agency, we take immense pride in staying true to our beliefs of brand-building when deciding which projects and brands to pursue. We are known to decline partnering with brands on occasions due to notable misalignment on the role of communications, vision for their brand growth, or simply the soundness of their offering to end customers. Our participation in pitches also follows a rigorous internal assessment into foreshadowing unreasonable fee demands or questionable practices that would contribute to the commoditization of our work.
Please describe the creativity culture at the agency
Culturally meaningful, with a dash of irreverence and passion for human ingenuity. Positivity at heart is also key. I am a firm believer that it takes a certain measure of intuition and guts to make truly outstanding work.
Brands seeking greater differentiation must navigate a fine line between pursuing the comfort of their “category norms” and reaching towards what hasn’t been done before. This is how they can become memorable.
As such, we encourage our teams to be empathetic to brands’ rationales and realities, but also challenge them to take a step back, reflect, question and think critically whenever we suspect everyone’s been drinking too much of the same Kool-Aid, at the expense of diverse insights and perspectives.
Storytelling has been a really used technique over the last decade. What ingredients are key to create a remarkable award-winning campaign?
I actually disagree that advertising has emphasized a strong sense of storytelling in the last decade. Not nearly enough, anyways. With the advent of specialized (notably digital) agencies in the early 2000s, the last decade actually cemented increased attention towards tactical implementations, hyper-rationalization and “data porn”, at the expense of more well-rounded campaigns.
Only recently, are we seeing a gradual realization from brands that such focus was detrimental to their long-term growth. The age-old struggle for efficiency – when we should seek effectiveness instead. Led by a prolonged focus and dialogue on the ever-changing state of media and content consumption, misunderstood “technological disruptions”, and predominance of vanity metrics; as opposed to brand and product differentiation, messaging and creativity.
For me, a good campaign is one that feels authentic to how a brand is perceived or how they are trying to project themselves. It should elicit an emotional response that over time, with consistency, sustained cultural relevance, and creative implementations, makes the brand more likely to be thought of, bought and sought.
From where do you get inspired when creating a new storytelling campaign?
This is going to sound cliché, but inspiration does really come from anywhere and everywhere. I believe a conducive creative process is one that helps frame exhilarating boundaries as opposed to restrictive stimulations.
As such, we often start by developing conjointly with brands, an aligned framework narrowing down core strategic do’s and don’ts that usually stem from a broader dialogue beyond just communications considerations. This exercise greatly helps our teams look for actionable insights towards the development of an overarching narrative. From there, we look more deeply into creative formats and implementations that will best serve the articulation of our messaging.
Last but not least, we plan how to best maximize our content reach. Historically, we’ve deflected on more than one occasion when early conversations and briefs turn out to be solely focused on creating campaigns towards specific platforms. We can tell quite quickly when brands don’t have clarity on their core message, and why having a presence on a particular platform would be beneficial beyond just an “everyone else does it” rationale.
What steps have you put in place to encourage innovation?
Once a year we find at least one technological innovation that has yet to see practical usage within our industry. These may include “deep tech” still in its infancy and far from any commercial or mass-market application. We allocate resources to prototype internal concepts or MVPs (Minimal Viable Product) that we foresee as either bringing added-value to our core business or potentially offering a premise for new business avenues. This exercise offers plenty of positive ramifications towards our internal work processes, while pushing us to remain critical of what we do on a day-to-day basis.
How do you make sure you have the right people to work on innovation?
It effectively starts with our hiring process. An important part of it revolves around identifying high potential profiles that may come across as atypical in the sense that they may not always fit a “standard” agency structure.
We are very comfortable putting people with seemingly not as much “relevant work experience” in a position that forces them to cross-pollinate a broader range of skillset and way of thinking. That is not to say that we don’t have specialists experienced in managing key responsibilities, but it does help challenge our industry norms and habits. We also consistently push our teams to think cross-categories and cross-industries.
In order to facilitate this level of maturity and commitment, we seek individuals with high levels of shared values in core philosophy and ethics, plus true passion and motivation for our line of work beyond the comfort of the immediate work scope.
Speaking about projects, which types do you find interesting?
Any projects where brands truly value and actively seek our strategic and creative inputs. Clear alignment on a bigger picture and longer-term ambition is also a must for me. I’m not dismissing any of the day-to-day realities brands have to deal with; however, our best work has always come from a collective realization that narrow and short-term tactical implementations would only end-up accomplishing so much.
Whenever we interact with brands, we hold ourselves to our high standards of being honest and critical even if it will lead to some difficult, if not painful conversations. Not only projecting, but effectively staying authentic to what we believe in – is core to keeping our people engaged. That is why they joined us in the first place. And it’s a big part of why they stay.
How has your life story shaped the person you are today?
I grew up in Asia and France, which has been a blessing for my career. It allowed me to navigate cultural nuances early on. Career-wise, I also started more as a “Math Man” having worked in digital performance marketing and then rotated across a plethora of agency roles as a “first-generation expatriate management trainee”. This helped me nurture enough vocabulary to reasonably keep up with most of the technicalities from various departments and functions.
I have always gravitated towards a certain degree of strategic and creative “sanity”. This has led me to contemplate what I believe are more effective ways to overcome some of the gaps we are seeing industry-wide with regards to integration as well as the increased desire for automation at the expense of human ingenuity and intuition.
For someone who is looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader, what resources would you recommend?
Have a reliable and trustworthy third-party perspective. Originally from a 4A advertising background, I am still adjusting to the realities of operating a younger and nimbler platform. I am working tirelessly on finding a better equilibrium between being a force for positive reinforcement and enforcing rigor and tough love to elevate our work.
Honest, non-sugarcoated third-party perspectives and feedbacks definitely help better understand one’s blind spots. Or alternatively, read “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and “Tribes” by Seth Godin.
What kind of news grabs your attention?
Current global geo-political tensions and socio-economic uncertainties are unsettling on so many levels. It certainly offers a lot to think about. Towards late 2019, we saw renewed attention and conversations around climate change, although not necessarily motivated by the right reasons and stimuli. It is quite saddening that it had to come to this, but hopefully it will be for the better if this truly becomes a moment of collective realization.
The interview was originally published on Top Interactive Agencies.
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