Agnès Riba wanted to be a computer scientist because, years ago, they said it was the profession of the future, but she soon discovered that the subject bored her, and ended up in the world of advertising because, in her words, it combines ‘the artistic with the business’. As the strategy director at After, when asked what she does, she responds that she ‘formulates the right questions’. Although she doesn’t have much free time, she knows the dialogues of Lost in Translation by heart and listens to podcasts about culture, feminism, and parenting on her way to the agency. We chatted with Agnès about strategy and her unique view of advertising and life.

Did you always know you wanted to work in the advertising world?

Not at all. When I was young, I wanted to be a computer scientist because they said it was the future (I’m from that generation that witnessed the arrival of the internet at home), and well, they weren’t completely wrong. But the computer science extracurricular seemed tremendously boring to me, and when I had to decide on a university degree, I was clear that I wanted something that combined the artistic world with the business world.

Within a creative agency, there are many areas. Why strategy?

Because I received feedback at the right time. In my first internship at an agency (Ogilvy), the creative director made me realize that I spent more time trying to understand and contribute to the briefing than on the creative response, so she advised me to move towards planning. Thank you, Aina Cortina.

After and strategy go hand in hand. So much so that the agency always argues that it is at the heart of the business. Without strategy, are there no brands?

Without strategy, there is hardly anything in the long term. Products can be short-term, brands cannot. Although, at first, dedicating resources to strategy seems to slow down the process, without strategy, there are no agreed criteria for making decisions, and that, in the long run, is a much greater loss of time and money.

If you had to explain exactly what strategy applied to advertising consists of to someone who doesn’t work in this field, how would you do it?

I tell my family that I’m in charge of defining what to communicate, and the creatives take care of how to tell it. Sometimes, I also explain that in strategy, we ask the right questions to inspire creativity to find the best solutions. At After, we have a motto: ‘Fewer same answers, more new questions.’

This has nothing to do with it, but what movie do you almost know its dialogues by heart?

It’s not fair, because I’m going to tell you a movie that I watched many times in my childhood, like Back to the Future or Star Wars, when I still watched dubbed movies. But now I lean more towards stories told by women, or at least movies that pass the Bechdel test. I could quote a line from Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola. I guess it stuck with me because I watched it at a stage in my life when I was also living in Japan.

And if you had to fly to a distant destination, what book would you pack in your suitcase for the journey?

I wouldn’t mind reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley again, or Nadie duerme by Barbijaputa. Although now I have several pending books that my friends gave me for my 40th birthday, like Cauterio by Lucía Lijtmaer.

Agnès, you’re a veteran at After: you’ve been with the agency for 9 years. Of all the projects you’ve contributed to, which one are you most proud of?

There are two things I’m especially proud of. The first is contributing to the people I work with and seeing them grow. And the second is driving the After 2030 plan, which consists of a set of actions to address different Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and where we collaborate with social entities, which show us that a better world is feasible.

Strategy director and full-time mother. How does Agnès manage to balance it all?

It would be good if we also asked this question to fathers. In my case, I won’t lie, navigating through guilt for not being able to do everything as I would like.

What distinctive methodology does After apply for a brand to find a good positioning?

Shortly after joining After, I took charge of developing our own methodology that structured the agency’s way of thinking. I quickly understood how Marc Ros and Risto Mejide sought to stir things up with the greatest strategic rigor through disruptive questions. From there, the PQC© methodology was born (standing for Why, What, and How), which to this day remains the methodology we use, both for internal work and in client creation processes.

Toni Segarra says that the difference between one brand and another is much more built on tone than on discourse. What do you think?

I won’t be the one to disagree with “Tone” Segarra. Personality has been the great forgotten of traditional branding because the focus was on the brand message. It was defined with generic adjectives like “approachable, friendly, and positive,” which is boring and undifferentiated. But nowadays, brands aren’t just about repeating a message over and over; they are in constant conversation. And in a conversation, tone is more important than the message. That’s why when I help define a brand’s personality and tone, I try to go beyond the obvious, even forcing some adjectives or attributes to not be entirely positive, just like people.

At what level can Artificial Intelligence be applied in a strategy department?

As in all areas, AI aids but does not replace. Right now, we’re using AI for contextual analysis. Not only because machines process a large amount of information faster than we do and can provide good summaries, but also because they can draw conclusions by detecting opportunities. Surely, we will make significant progress in its use over the next few years, but let’s not deceive ourselves: AI learns through predictive patterns, and precisely the most brilliant strategies transcend predictability. I’m convinced that human intuition is indispensable in strategy.

What do you think will be the main trends in the sector this year?

When the industry talks about trends, it focuses a lot on technologies, formats, and channels. But I’m more interested in social trends, how society is changing its values and behaviors. That’s why, I’m sorry to say, I read more sociologists than industry magazines. I’d like to mention a couple of trends I’m working on. The first is the growing interest of society in mental health and emotional well-being, so if 20 years ago the trend towards healthy consumption changed everything, now mental health is also clearly changing consumption priorities. The second trend is the difficulty in knowing the truth. There is widespread access to information without knowing how to verify it. At the agency, for some time now, with our friends at Verificat, we’ve been discussing how brands should take responsibility against misinformation.

What is the main problem facing advertising today?

I’ll answer with another question: Problem for whom? For society and audiences? For those of us who make a living from advertising? Or for those who need advertising to sell? If we talk about those of us who live off the effectiveness of advertising, for years, with information overload and audience fragmentation, the problem has been the reach and relevance of brands. We’ve tried it with branded content, micro-segmentation, or purpose-driven brands. But… it’s not resolved. I still see, today, investments wasted on content that reaches very few people. We need to link actions much more to measurable results, put more science into our profession. I think strategists have work for years to come.

Who inspires you professionally?

Many of our clients inspire me. The best part of our profession is working for a wide variety of sectors and companies and being close to the business leaders who influence our society. I’ll give you some names: Marieta Jiménez, European Vice President of the science and technology company Merck, who has been and continues to be an inspiration in empowering leadership. Also, Clara Navarro, who as General Director of the Ship2B Foundation, has shown me that the business world and the social world must go hand in hand. And finally, Elena Massot, CEO of the real estate developer Vertix, whom I recently met and is an example of a corporate culture that keeps a team proud for decades.

And personally?

Well, I suppose the people I listen to and read, who aren’t famous. For example, in motherhood and parenting, Paola Roig, Andrea Ros, or Judit Besora. In feminism, Ana de Miguel, Iris Borda, or Júlia Salander. And my friends. I surround myself with brilliant women, some of whom I’ve met thanks to After, and they are also an inspiration to me.

What does Agnès like to do in her free time?

Free time, what’s that? I used to travel and go to concerts and festivals. Now, while commuting to the agency, I listen to podcasts about culture, feminism, and parenting.

If you had a time machine and could go back, would you choose strategy again?

Strategy, yes, advertising strategy maybe not. I don’t like to repeat myself, but I think I would inevitably end up in the most strategic part of any sector.

One more thing… a thank you to Adriana Benito, who made this AfterTalk possible by asking the right questions.