Olivier Philippe co-founded WITH in 2015 with Branislav Peric. The company positions itself as a new kind of digital partner and will celebrate its 6th year anniversary this year and has never been better, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever asked to speak, Olivier always responds “I have nothing to say” or “I do not like the limelight.” Here is his first official interview.
Why was 2020 a great year for WITH? Why is 2021 shaping up to be even stronger? What are the keys to WITH that keep major accounts loyal, and lastly how has employer branding been stronger than ever?
Interviewed by William Réjault (one of WITH’s first employees in 2015 as well as currently being an “implant” for the past 3 years at Danone)
— Olivier, we are FINALLY able to sit down and talk with you!
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t say much, but you know how the world runs. And then my team pushes me to share what I’ve learned and how I like to organize things. So, for the first and maybe the last time, go ahead and ask me your questions.
— Here we go! What is your motto?
I don’t know if this is my motto, but I really like this sentence from Bertrand Piccard: “If you accept the crisis, it becomes an adventure.”
— Ah, you are one of the happy few who consider that 2020 and this COVID-19 crisis have nonetheless been beneficial for you and WITH?
It’s an amazing year, yes, in learning, in lessons. We have grown, put on weight, moved like never before, and I have not had time to take stock until the start of 2021. It’s our best year in the six years since we launched WITH.
“We achieved 39% growth and we hired 32 new employees between 2 countries in 1 year.”
Let me go back for just a bit. At the beginning of 2020, a year ago, we were told all over the news of an unprecedented crisis. Every emergency light was flashing red, all our offices had to be urgently closed overnight. Despite this, we sprung into action and we mandated teleworking for everyone, with the snap of our fingers. The next morning, we were all dispatched across the world! Whether it was in France, Spain, London, and even Auvergne, our daily lives took over with the obsession to avoid the slightest worry in supporting our customers.
— Were you worried?
A little for business, I’m not going to lie to you, but more for the well-being of the teams and, above all, the transition to 100% tele-working mode. Would it be possible to not lose these informal moments between us which makes the workspace tick? How could we as a business maintain this link? How could we assure our customers that everything was going to be okay?
In March, we revised our objectives and decided to maintain gradual growth. This was accomplished! We achieved 39% growth and we hired 32 new employees across 2 countries in 1 year.
— It is funny but I still remember the very beginning of WITH. We were only 4 people in a small office in Sentier (2nd arrondissement of Paris, France). You hired me from Canal+ and admitted to me six months later that you did not know if you were going to be able to pay me for some time. How did you organize yourself to handle this growth?
We tried to prioritize our actions. Two subjects emerged: benevolence, with almost immediate results of the effectiveness of our model around specific service offers. The crisis has not really impacted us emotionally or professionally because we all know each other very well. We stand in solidarity with each other and, most importantly, we have developed proprietary tools and processes internally, from the beginning.
The results: twelve painless months for our customers despite the crisis, teleworking, zoom calls, etc. No one complained and … we gained 21 new customers!
— How do you analyze this success? What made this project work?
Without a doubt, one of the reasons is my business partnership with Branislav, my co-founder and close friend. Those who know us know that: we are very different, we are not good on the same subjects, but in short we are very complementary and we like to do things together.
It’s not a matter of having the same taste for others or the same outlook on life, not necessarily, but in our case, what works is this understanding of the other with his own sensitivity. In the end, he and I have the same values. We are the best of colleagues. As I know he loves football, the two of us, we are like Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet when they played together for the France team, I can pass him the pass without seeing him, and because of my intuition I know where he is to score.
“[2020,] this is our best year in six years since we launched WITH.”
In terms of association, we also have two fantastic partners in Spain, Rémy and Geoffroy, with whom we have built a subsidiary in Madrid, which I hope will be even more powerful than Paris.
— So, the first key to success, an atypical partnership. And then?
Undeniably, these are the values that we strive to cultivate with our partners, all of our customers, as well as between our employees: mutual aid, support, trust, listening and high standards. These are not just words or concepts. This is the reality of our life at the agency and of our interactions with those who trust us since 2015.
— And what about the solutions that you offer? For example, I was the first to be placed as an “implant,” as you like to say, at the highest level of a CAC company. An incredible job, I can attest to that. This is your signature offer…
Yes, that’s one of the things we excel at. Of all our offers, this is the one that has the most impact on the news: the internalization of expert resources within our clients’ teams, or “implants.” Not a month goes by without us receiving this type of request.
— Why is this offer such a hit?
It is an offer at the crossroads of two crucial needs: the immense variety of expertise necessary for the digital transformation of our clients and at the same time the difficulty of our clients in leveraging their resources within their teams. “Implants” now represent 50% of our resources.
They are all hired on permanent contracts and carry out their missions directly within our clients’ teams with flexibility and responsiveness. Our implants have specific know-how or, they are trained and coached for this throughout their services. This shows that WITH is not hired just to answer recruitment questions.
— How do you see the future of WITH, in the short-term?
We’ve only been around for 6 years, but now that we’re on the right track with specific offers and performance and our goals are clearly defined, we’ve thought about how we will evolve. We are facing the development of a new conception of the company, different from the traditional conception with classical objectives, that is to say social and financial.
Civil society has increasingly strong expectations of business: it must now make a contribution to the common good by participating in the resolution of environmental and societal issues.
This message is unequivocal. This is also the reason why we have always been sensitive to Danone’s message, to this dual eco-social project and this B-Corporation status (a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials). On our side, we have matured in parallel. If WITH wants to continue its transformation and offer its employees to participate, we must find an interest in doing so. The evolution of our economic model must take into account that the performance of the company also depends on its societal and environmental commitment.
— Which means, concretely, that you are going to change… what… in terms of status? Are you thinking about a new position?
We are thinking about these topics. Will WITH have the status of a company with a mission? Will we need to be B-Corporation certified? Should a new CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) offer be built? There are a multitude of subjects of this kind tormenting us at the moment. We are spoiled for choices and have a lot of fun working it out hand in hand with the teams. All the new hires who join us have this in common that their generation wants strong and precise meanings to their professional and human needs, the two often come together. Keep a mindful eye for companies that won’t admit this.
— Come on, you’re not going to cop out and avoid the question ;). Where will you be in five years?
Who could say what the next few years will look like. What is certain is that the world before the pandemic will not return. We are moving towards a new world. What is also certain is that we can take our destiny in our hands. To suffer is not to act. This is what we have strived to do this year, individually and collectively. At WITH, we have therefore continued to invest in many talents, in Spain and France, with the arrival of 32 new people whom we have taken on with kindness, “while respecting social distancing measures.”
“What is certain is that the world before will not return. We are moving towards a new world. ”
You know how important the first few days are when you get to a new job. It is not easy when the workspace of your latest arrival is located on a wooden chair in his small kitchen.
We have also gained the loyalty of our long-standing customers, including Danone and L’Oréal, and strengthened unique offers such as Marketing in Asia and E-commerce. We have completely streamlined our useful in-housing or “implant” proposals during a “hiring freeze” period and maintained our technological stance in all of our proprietary offers, our working methods, our discussions, and our partnerships.
If we follow our 3-year business plan, our future will also depend on the opening of new subsidiaries abroad. If the health crisis has held us back, it is only on this subject. We were unable to travel, to meet new talents and candidates for this type of adventure. We will catch up in 2021. We already have 2 options in the current plans, I hope to identify another before the end of the year.
— You told me that you had set up an in-house team of a dozen developers in Madrid who are running at full speed, in order to produce 100% tailor-made tech solutions?
Yes, this is one of our great pride. It is a hit. The office has developed several in-house projects to better serve our customers, such as our Datagram tool, a Business Intelligence service powered by artificial intelligence that allows data to be viewed in a unique way.
They also support us enormously in the right selection of our technical partners to support our customer advice.
— I would like to dwell a little on the employer branding. How did you manage, remotely, at the HR level, to manage this part? It’s a bit difficult at the moment right?
I can assure you that it has never been so difficult as it has been in recent months! The only tricks that work to keep morale high amongst our employees happen to be the most time-consuming but rather interesting options for all of us. It goes from the very classic weekly meeting with all the company’s collaborators, (it goes without saying that you have to like the Zooms) to the meetings with our management team (also via Zoom), as well as to all the technical equipment now needed in our daily lives such as Slack, Notion, or G-Suite, for example.
“Mutual aid, support, trust, listening and compassion.”
I really care about individual acts. For example during the confinement: picnic baskets that we sent to our teams on Fridays or the Bacardi boxes that were sometimes sent (our new client) to make cocktails during curfew. Also with the confinement, there was the possibility of managing your time better since we began work earlier and at home, some of us even bought electric bicycles to avoid public transport. We also reinforced training, CSE subjects were dealt with more quickly and we also hired a Chief People Officer to boost company morale. This was all vital.
In 2021, we also invited some of our employees at WITH to speak freely on subjects that are dear to them. The next article will be an interview by Sébastien Camusot and will deal with the progress and future of eCommerce. Why this subject? Because in a post-COVID world, where the acceleration of digital commerce is expected to reach $ 3,530 billion and + 35% growth by 2023, this is a key area to watch.
— Thank you Olivier!
William, thank you for your time, it was fun after all. See you soon!