Inspirational Woman: Alessandra Desfoux | Managing Partner, Lewis Moberly

Alessandra DesfouxAlessandra Desfoux is Managing Partner of independent brand and design agency Lewis Moberly, renowned for its identity work with Moet & Chandon, LVMH, Johnnie Walker whiskies among others.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’ve always had a passion for brands. My father was working as photographer for an advertising agency and my mother works in fashion. Creativity and the arts have always been a part of my world from an early age. With branding, you can see art and behavioural science converge, which I find fascinating.

Being half Italian and half French, I’ve led quite an international life, dividing my time between Modena and Paris. I studied marketing and communications at university in Milan, and my first job was at a. branding agency called Super Union (previously known as Brand Union) in Paris where I worked in client services and strategy. I lived and worked in Paris for 7 years before moving to London 8 years ago. That’s when I first started working for Lewis Moberly as an Account Director, working on Diageo and growing the Ferrero account. It was my first job in the UK, and although I really loved my job and the culture of the agency (which was more like a big family rather than a collection of colleagues), I left after a few years because I was keen to broaden my experience and work within brand innovation. But I returned a few years, having never really lost touch with the founders.

I rejoined Lewis Moberly as Managing Partner – a position I proudly hold today.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I studied marketing and communications at university in Milan at the same time as working as a model. Although I found working within the fashion industry had many perks – the travel, the parties, the clothes – the experience made me realise that I definitely didn’t want to pursue it as a career. If anything, modelling affirmed my interest in pursuing a line of work that combined communications with creativity. So I resolved to concentrate on my studies in marketing instead.

My attitude and approach to work and life have always been driven by my ambition to succeed and to make a career out of a passion. I came to realise this even more over the last 12 months since the loss of my husband last year. He’d been a part of my life for 17 years, and we were married for four. He was my best friend. You can’t plan your life out. I think rather than planning my career as such, I’ve always followed what’s inspired me and what has felt right at that moment. I can’t predict where my life will lead me next but as long as I am excited to get up for work in the morning, I know I am in the right place.

Of course I know that having a job that one is passionate about makes it less a ‘job’ and more about a pursuit that is rewarding. Life throws curveballs, and lockdown has presented lots of wellbeing challenges – emotionally, mentally and physically. This current reality has made me appreciate, even more, how vital it is to work for a business that cares about its people. Company culture is everything, and our work is equally about building relationships as much as creativity. I believe that this is definitely the way to do business.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

My husband’s death has been the single, most difficult experience of my life. And it has fired within me the resolve to live life to the fullest and take advantage of every single moment. For me, my work is like a form of therapy.

Lockdown has of course been difficult for different people, for different reasons. To keep myself grounded, I run every day and meditate. In ‘normal’ times, I love sailing and surfing. I live alone, and my family is in Italy. My sister lives in New York, and I recently became an auntie to my little nephew. I am really thankful for the support network I have in the form of good colleagues, a really caring and compassionate company to work in, and great friends.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Being promoted to Managing Partner of one of the most reputable design agencies in the industry at a personally challenging time in my life is something of which I’m particularly proud.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I have a strong work / life ethic. I’ve always been incredibly driven and self-motivated. To be happy I need to have a job where my work encompasses my passion; that is how I measure my success. I’ve had exceptional support and mentorship from some of the best people within the industry, and working within a business that has a great family-like culture has undoubtedly enabled me to professionally develop and grow creatively, as well as from an entrepreneurial perspective.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

When I first left Lewis Moberly I was fortunate enough to have my former bosses become my mentors. That mentorship has been so important to me and my career development. Robert Moberly has been in the industry for many years and, well into his 80s, he’s still very much a driving force within the business. As far as mentors go, particularly for this fast-moving and ever-changing industry we’re in, he shares a lot of valuable wisdom – not least because he has lived through significant historic moments and has seen how branding, as a discipline, has evolved. From picking up design briefs for Vodka in communist Russia during the Cold War, travelling in bullet-hole ridden taxis across barren land to creating immersive design for hotels and international airports – I’ll never tire of his anecdotes. Meanwhile, Mary Lewis started this business over 30 years ago in her sitting room and is widely regarded in the brand design world as the ‘Queen of packaging design’. Although she is very understated about her achievements (such as being the first woman to be president of the D&AD), I think she has contributed a lot to an industry that has traditionally favoured men. Gender parity is something that is definitely reinforced and practised in the agency. I do love mentoring and nurturing my younger colleagues. Seeing them growing and flourishing within the business is one of my biggest prides.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Gender parity needs to start at the grassroots. It comes from educating children properly about the different kinds of career paths available to them. A lot of the misconceptions about jobs that lead to a lack of diversity and skill gaps across industries comes from an early age, where children learn about gendered roles and what supposedly constitutes a ‘man’s’ job or a ‘woman’s’ job. But out in the working world, we need to do several things to accelerate the pace of change for gender parity: we need more inspirational female role models working in careers where diversity and equality is an issue to share their stories and act as enablers for other women to progress despite the challenges; we need men in positions of power to act as enablers and advocates of change too; and we need to address shared parental leave urgently – given that starting a family considerably harms women’s career progression in a way that does not happen with men. Finally, we need to understand and address that women’s own lived experience of inequality in the workplace is not universal and uniform – and that minorities within the minorities (such as BAME background women) will be at a greater disadvantage when it comes to progressing in a career than others. That’s not to say that success isn’t likely – but women who do succeed despite the challenges are more the exception than the rule, so this needs to change.

What career advice would you give to your younger self?

Any career advice I’d give would be framed by everything I have learnt in life so far. Firstly, life is fragile, so enjoy it as much as you can. Do a job that energises you and is fulfilling. If you can’t make a career out of a passion, make sure you have a passion you can pursue outside of your career. Persevere through the tough times, believe in yourself and your abilities, surround yourself by ‘enablers’ who help you personally develop and bloom. And of course, be curious and never stop learning.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Although I love the brand design industry, there are definitely things I’d like to help change – starting off with its general perception. Despite great campaigns and proven efficacy of great brand design in transforming, launching and turning a company around, the value it brings is often not recognised or credited as much as, say, advertising. This is often reflected in the marketing budget distribution; much is invested in advertising but brand design comparatively seems like it gets the crumbs off the table. There’s also still a tired mentality that communication of a message can only be effectively relayed through advertising. There is a lot of education to be done, as an industry, to collectively show the worth of brand design. I think that is something that all agencies within the field can collaborate on – to champion the transformative work we can do.

For example, we transformed the waste of India’s village buffalo farmers into a premium dog treat brand that penetrated the $24.6bn pet food market in just 16 months. Good brand design and strategy enabled cut through to secure widespread retail distribution in a saturated market. Equally, we turned one man’s kitchen table business – organic skin products that he was concocting on his stove – into an award winning premium beauty brand heralded by Vogue and distributed by some of the most prestigious retailers in the UK. Brand strategy and design can help make or break a business. It should absolutely be a part of a strategic business growth plan.

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