Profile: Eurostar's new marketing chief gets set to take on all comers
Lionel Benbassat, incoming Eurostar marketing chief, has competition and a new agency roster in his sights. Interview by Noelle McElhatton.
The French love affair with la vie Anglaise, fuelled partly by a certain high-speed rail link to the UK, is well-documented. Now the ranks of 300,000-plus French expats in London are about to swell once more.
From January 2012, a multilingual, jazz-loving Frenchman will become a Londoner, as 34-year-old Lionel Benbassat takes the reins of Eurostar's new centralised marketing division.
Benbassat, currently based in Paris as head of marketing and sales - France at Eurostar International, has been appointed to the brand's new marketer-in-chief role. As director of marketing and brand, he will be in charge of 25 people across Eurostar's Paris, Brussels and London hubs.
By then, Benbassat will have relocated his family, possibly to Kentish Town, close to Eurostar's Kings Cross headquarters. Although Benbassat has lived in London before, while at university - this and two years in the US during his childhood account for his flawless English - he declares himself 'very excited' about the move.
In a professional capacity, he particularly wants to delve into the 'popular culture of English people' to find out how they react to advertising and the Eurostar brand. Unlike Eurostar's London-based chief executive Nicolas Petrovic, however, this quest for knowledge will not stretch to Benbassat supporting Arsenal. Football is not a passion, he says; jazz and cinema are, however.
A Eurostar 'lifer,' Benbassat joined as online marketing manager in 2004, after gaining degrees in marketing and law, and has progressed steadily up the ladder. In heading a centralised marketing team, he takes the helm from the much-admired Emma Harris, who is leaving Eurostar after 10 years with other 'irons in the fire'.
As Marketing caught up with Benbassat in Paris, Eurostar was about to launch its first pan-European TV ad. Will it move the brand away from its customary play on local cultural nuances - the romance of Paris, the eccentricity of the English? 'We've been using cliches in all the markets for years now, because we've been relying so much on our destinations,' he agrees.
The 'Trainstorming' ad, introducing the strapline 'Opening the way', is a surreal take by Eurostar, an Olympic sponsor, on what the London 2012 opening ceremony might look like. The brand's core markets are represented by three artists - Jarvis Cocker (UK), Michel Gondry (France) and Arno Hintjens (Belgium). Reaction among London creatives has been mixed.
The campaign, which broke on TV in France, Belgium and the UK almost simultaneously, is 'all about our link with "the biggest show on earth",' says Benbassat.
While showcasing Eurostar's association with the 2012 Olympics is a good idea, its current ad roster review has been prompted by a more seismic change due in late 2013, when cross-Channel rail deregulation comes into force. This will leave it facing the prospect of competition from the likes of Germany's Deutsche Bahn.
There is one topic that ruffles even this phlegmatic Frenchman, who is too polite to correct this interviewer's mangling of his name (it's pronounced Leon-elle, not Lionel). When asked what many agencies want to know - who has the final say in the roster review - Benbassat seems mildly, if only momentarily, irritated.
'Have you ever seen one person in charge of choosing agencies? Emma (Harris) and I are working together. I have the knowledge of agencies from the Continent, while she knows the UK agencies. We are co-leading, because we need to share our knowledge,' he says.
Harris agreed to remain on until January to help organise the search, to be managed strictly according to Official Journal of the European Union rules. The winners will craft pan-European campaigns for France, the UK and Belgium, as well as markets further afield, such as the US and Australia. Activation of these campaigns will be at a local level.
Since 2007, Fallon London has produced quirky ads highlighting the charm of Eurostar's Continental destinations, and Benbassat believes the Olympics ad, created by French agency Leg, to be the start of the brand's journey from a 'multi-local to multinational' positioning.
Some might argue that this challenge requires the hiring of a network. 'That's not true,' retorts Benbassat, although later, he reveals his admiration for Maurice Levy, chief executive of Publicis Groupe. 'There are other ways to work,' he says. 'We're looking for a pair of agencies able to deliver what is new to Eurostar: pan-European communication displayed in all the markets, communicating anything common to them all in terms of product or service.'
The debate over the future of specialist agencies intrigues him, partly because he has 'never seen a big agency mastering everything', or 'a digital specialist agency mastering creative ideas. Ideally, we're looking for mastery of everything, including digital and the creative side'.
Social media, one of the sharpest tools for a travel brand, will be an early area of scrutiny for Benbassat. In 2009, it was Eurostar's Achilles heel when its response to major rail disruption caused by poor weather was to use social networks to try to sell more tickets. Its creation of a 24-hour social-media platform rectified the damage, and a new head of social role - possibly an internal appointment, suggests Benbassat - will be based in any of Eurostar's three hubs.
Eurostar now has 'quite good expertise' in social media internally, but needs someone to take charge of what Benbassat calls 'fast-moving media usage'. The brand, he says, was 'not ready in 2009 to use the power of these tools, but we've learned a lot'.
One can only imagine how social might be a weapon in Eurostar's battle with future rivals, including Deutsche Bahn. Such competition coming down the track doesn't faze Benbassat, who claims to be 'excited about it'. He adds: 'We will have to be more single-minded than we have (been) in the past, to make sure that we communicate our very clear benefits to our audience.'
To those who contend that Eurostar's brand proposition has yet to be fully defined - is it a travel brand, or merely a train? - Benbassat says its latest ad is 'a very clear starting point' that gives 'more clarity on where we want to be now and in three years' time'. He cites the strapline as evidence of this.
Benbassat believes that Eurostar's head start on its rivals will stand it in good stead. 'We've been here 17 years, operating on these routes, talking to travellers,' he says. 'Deutsche Bahn (and the rest have) been doing the same job, but on other routes. It is they who will have to make their way.'
2004-present: Online marketing manager - France, rising to head of marketing and sales - France, Eurostar International; takes up role of director of marketing and brand, Eurostar International, in January 2012
Family: Married, one daughter
Drives: Saab 900, with plans to buy a vintage Norton motorcycle in the UK
Hobbies: Jazz, cinema
Favourite brands: Apple, IKEA
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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