'There's a lot of bullshit around content', says Havas SE Cake's Pettett

Havas SE Cake's marriage of 'magic and maths' has much to teach other Havas businesses, its chief executive, Adrian Pettett, tells Kate Magee

Pettett: ‘We didn’t have big media dollar; we had to rely on great ideas and engaging dialogue’
Pettett: ‘We didn’t have big media dollar; we had to rely on great ideas and engaging dialogue’

When the founders of Cake painted the phrase "brand entertainment" on its office wall in the early 2000s to encapsulate what it did, a fierce debate ensued about whether anyone would understand what it meant. 

More than a decade later, most people are sick of hearing that phrase and you can’t move for brands force-feeding you some form of "content".

The industry has changed since that prescient paint job. But then, so has Cake. 

Cake was set up in 1999 by Mike Mathieson, Mark Whelan (now Havas Worldwide’s global creative director) and Ben Jones. 

Adrian Pettett joined in 2002, spearheading the agency’s move into advertising-funded programming. 

By 2008, it had been sold to Havas for a reported £12 million. But after sitting relatively quietly in the network’s portfolio, Cake was merged last year with Havas Sports & Entertainment in the UK to create Havas’ first "entertainment hub" – a global prototype.

In December, Havas appointed Pedro Avery, the former UK chief executive of Arena Media, to be the global chief executive of Havas Sports & Entertainment. In the UK, the leadership of the newly merged group of 120 staff was handed to Pettett – who, by then, was Cake’s chief executive. 

Sitting in the agency’s offices in Covent Garden (ahead of the 2017 move to Havas Village), Pettett is clearly energised by the changes. 

He claims that the first three months of this year is the most active new-business quarter he has ever known – Havas Sports & Entertainment Cake has nine pitches on the go. In the first six months of the merger, the agency picked up work for Coca-Cola, secured a place on the global Adidas experiential roster and, most recently, beat four agencies to win the global PR business for the hotels behemoth InterContinental Hotels Group. 

A key driver of the merger is to help Havas SE Cake make better use of Havas’ partnership with Vivendi, which owns Universal Music Group and StudioCanal. The Bolloré Group owns stakes in both Havas and Vivendi.

One of the success stories so far is a project with Universal Music for the online retailer Very. Havas SE Cake created one of the first "shoppable" YouTube ads in the UK, featuring the hip-hop duo Rizzle Kicks – it enabled viewers to buy anything that appeared in the film. Pettett says the client was able to directly attribute £1.4 million worth of sales to the video ad.  

Pettett believes Cake’s heritage in "brand entertainment" gives it an advantage over competitors. "There’s a lot of bullshit, frankly, around content and brands as publishers," he says. "But we haven’t just picked up a book off the shelf and thought: ‘We’ll do some of that.’ We’ve always been in this space. We didn’t have big media dollar; we had to rely on great ideas and engaging dialogue, and get consumers to do our marketing for us."

To effectively engage with consumers, brands need to provide something genuinely entertaining or useful, Pettett argues: "Experiential-led marketing used to be all about disruption and interruption. These are the things that are turning people away from advertising. 

"We need to find ways to weave a brand story into the everyday narrative of people’s lives. The challenge for the brand is that you’ve got to put the story first and the brand second. If you are going to engage with people, it has to be about what matters to them."

He gives the example of the Havas SE Cake client EE, which provides network coverage and charging stations at Glastonbury Festival. "If I’m a 22-year-old at Glastonbury, being able to text friends, post on social media and meet people is just as important as the beer tent," Pettett says. "Two hundred thousand people in a field are able to stay connected because of EE. It’s about giving people something to make a positive, tangible difference."

Notable campaigns by Cake include helping to keep Brockwell Lido open with Evian and Orange Playlist, a TV show that ran on ITV for three series. The agency also created the music festival Sundae on the Common for Ben & Jerry’s. 

Pettett now describes Havas SE Cake as a partnership management and engagement marketing agency. The shop handles, among others, Barclays’ sponsorship of the Premier League (although its title sponsor status ends this season). 

What Havas SE Cake achieves from the merger is a more rigorous approach to measurement and strategy – or, as Pettett puts it, "marrying magic and maths".

Pettett, a former publisher of Loaded, has a big personality, with a healthy dose of self-confidence and ambition. His points are punctuated by rough bangs on the table. "I am restless. I have a short concentration span. I’m an agitator. I get cross when things aren’t moving ahead fast enough," he admits. 

This energy is being funnelled into Havas SE Cake. Pettett claims he gets into work earlier than he ever has before because he is so enthused about the challenge. 

For him, the opportunity is that the agency now has the attention and the ears of the Havas management, who want Havas SE Cake to be far more integrated with the rest of the group. 

"We’ve been part of the Havas business for seven years," Pettett says, "but our time is now."

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