On the money: Meet Havas Group APAC CFO Brice Pinoncely

For as long as we can remember, CFOs have always been the guys crunching numbers behind the scenes. However, this year, with all our plans thrown up in the air, and with agency heads scrambling to get back to the drawing board to ensure their firms remain afloat, agency CFOs have taken centre stage at all of these discussion. In this week’s “On the money” column, we speak to Havas Group APAC CFO Brice Pinoncely on cost optimization and cost control during the pandemic.

He says that given the unpredictability of the virus situation, it is nearly impossible for anyone to predict with confidence how the COVID-19 crisis will unfold. As a result, the focus on cost control is here to stay for a while. When asked what is a piece of advice he'd share to surviving this economy, he says, it is to not look at the past with a rear view mirror, instead, accept things as they are.

"These are challenging times and patience, resilience and staying together are much needed qualities to pull us through. We also need to focus on our expertise and do what we do best while continuously enabling the healthy exchange of ideas," he says. More here on his journey.

Marketing InteractiveTell us a little bit about your role? How did you end up in the agency role?

Strategic financial and commercial thinking is an important aspect of every leadership position but as the CFO – it is an integral part of my role. As the financial leader of the agency, my mandate is to support the management in executing agency’s vision and facilitating growth as well as support back office functions such as legal, HR and IT.  Joining the advertising industry was not something that I planned but it just happened, once I completed my degree in finance and economics in France.

I started in Havas Singapore as a trainee when it was Euro RSCG in 1996.

I went back to France only to be a back with a permanent job in Singapore, a year later. Since then, I have worked in Australia, Europe before moving back to Singapore in 2018 in my current role. Over the years, I broadened my career path doing a variety of finance roles in different subsidiaries of Havas and in the process, immersed myself in understanding the nuances of the advertising industry including its various functions like account management, client servicing amongst others.

In early 2014, Havas as a network embraced the operating principle of Together – a strategy that transcends the traditional separation between “creative” and “media” in order to guarantee an agile, seamless and fully integrated service to clients as a result my current role oversees the financial aspect of all our communication disciplines like creative, media, and public relations. So far, it has been an interesting journey and it is great to be back in Asia – a refreshing change.

Marketing Interactive: What is a popular misconception people in the industry have about the CFO role? 

Usually, my colleagues know what I do, however, outside of that, the most common misconception is that the CFO only serves as the chief accountant of a company to ensure that financial documentation  are in order. The truth is that today’s financial executives go beyond the stereotypes and embrace new skills as they are a key pillar of organisational growth and success.

Marketing Interactive: In light of the current pandemic, agencies are under a lot of strain. How has the pandemic evolved your role and impacted your job?

While cost optimisation has always been a core focus area of my role, the current turmoil resulting from the pandemic, has brought cost control to the fore. Unfortunately, nobody could have predicted the huge repercussions of this unprecedented situation and currently, nobody can predict with confidence how the COVID-19 crisis will unfold. As a result, the focus on cost control is here to stay for a while. As an agency network - we have made forward planning a priority in order to be agile and bounce back quickly when recovery sets in.

Marketing Interactive: What are some of the biggest economic crises you’ve been through? What were some of the learning lessons?

The current crisis is by far the biggest economic crisis that I am having to deal with. This is undoubtedly the largest shock to the global economy that we have witnessed in decades. A new reality is upon us as we are dealing with an unprecedented level of change and disruption and the biggest learning is that we are all in this together and committed to riding this wave collectively as a network. Solidarity of thought, action, and supporting colleagues including the business partnership with the CEO in tackling the business challenges, has never been so important. Apart from that, positivity, continued agility and flexibility and a renewed focus on health and well-being are some of my key learnings.

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests from agency heads/leads are you most likely to say no to? 

Currently, it’s a global crisis and business has been tough everywhere and discretionary spending has been impacted. Requests such as salary increase, significant capex expenditure; example somebody decides to move into a new building and undertake a heavy renovation will obviously be met with a no. In fact any kind of operational investment – regionally or locally – is on hold for the moment – till the situation improves.

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests do you find hard to say no to?

At the moment, it is not hard to say no to any kind of request, as it is crucial to tackle near-term challenges.

However, under normal circumstances, the requests that are hard to turn down are the ones that involve investment in talent especially rewarding good work but with the support of our local management and our global headquarters, we  usually find a way to make it happen.

Marketing Interactive: What is the best way to get a budget from you?

It’s best to follow a process-driven approach and showcase the value to establish credibility. It is crucial for the CFO to understand how the budget request will add value to the organisation, or will support the organisation in meeting its objectives or align with the company culture. I would say, a clear line of thinking and simplifying the complex are important. Additionally, it’s good to understand communication styles and how your CFO likes to receive the information. For example, I prefer email communication and it’s easier to get my attention through that channel.

Marketing Interactive: What is the biggest challenge in your role?

The biggest challenge that I face at the moment is to make sure people are realistic in their projection.

Being candid in what can be achieved or cannot be achieved saves time, effort and energy. It’s better to have a realistic budget rather than one that over promises and under delivers. This is the usual rule of thumb, however under the current circumstance – it needs to be reemphasised.

Marketing Interactive: What is the best part of your role?

Understanding and interacting with people is what I thrive on. Going behind the numbers to understand the cultural nuances, the challenges, the mindset and then getting the best out of people by empowering, motivating and guiding them – gives me the most satisfaction.

Marketing Interactive: How much involvement do you have in creative conversations or pitches and strategy or PR?

Pitches – yes, as it is important to know that the pricing is right and details like payment terms, contractual obligations, intellectual property rights are in order. In terms of other areas, such as strategy, creative conversations and PR, I prefer not to get involved as there are experts hired in these functions, who know their job best. Time is a precious resource and its best to optimise my time to focus on areas that need my active inputs, rather than areas that are outside of my expertise.

Marketing Interactive: A CFO in an agency today doesn’t just need to be good with numbers. What other skills do you feel are needed to be a great CFO?

The role of the CFO has changed rapidly, of course. A chief financial officer can no longer simply rely on crunching numbers while focusing solely on a company's balance sheet. Open communications and people management are absolutely critical to the function. Leadership skills to influence people and to lead change, navigating the business drivers that drives the financials of the company, risk management are key areas of proficiency.

A sense of humour also helps to let off the steam in a high pressure industry like advertising.