“Challenge the unacceptable”
Marc Michils, from advertising to fundraising for cancer
For many years, Marc Michils (SLM, 1976) was CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the most successful advertising agencies in Belgium. Whilst remaining chairman of the agency, he has taken on a new challenge as the head of the Vlaamse Liga tegen Kanker (Flemish League against Cancer) since the beginning of this year. “The challenge itself is different, but many things are remarkably similar.”
With more than 30 years in the advertising business, you could say that you’ve been around.
Marc: “I’m 59 now, so it was time for another chapter in my life. Most of all I’ll miss my colleagues: I hired every one of the team. I’ll remain chairman of Saatchi for the foreseeable future but I won’t have any operational involvement, though I can still give advice when required. But this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.”
What’s it like working in a completely different habitat?
Marc: “The challenge at the Liga is certainly different, but many things are remarkably similar: managing a team and persuading people to do what’s right. Now is the time to put my talents to good use and promote a cause that I respect and know well. I’ve been on the Liga board since 2005, and became vice-president in 2008. I know the organisation, and the 45 people involved know me. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think I could make a difference. I’m still ambitious, and this is a chance to work for a great NGO and a good social cause.”
You studied marketing at Vlerick back in 1975-76. What memories do you have of that time?
Marc: “I remember the courses with Professor André Vlerick well. He was very charismatic and his lectures were quite a spectacle! He had a talent for rhetoric and was a brilliant thinker – but above all, he was a personality. I was also honoured to have had Professor Jos Van Acker as my marketing tutor. He was known as the Belgian Kotler, but he’d actually already published his handbook long before Kotler wrote his famous tome. He was the man who motivated me to choose a career in marketing and communication. As it was, I’d done four years of ‘classic’ economics, and was ready for something a little more exciting. Marketing seemed to be one of the more creative facets of economics. Professor Van Acker always encouraged me and played an important role in my career. Every year, I’d go back and see him – there was an emotional bond there – and without a doubt, he gave me self-confidence. I did consider becoming an assistant at Ghent University, but it was clear that my future lay in actually doing things, not just thinking about the theory.”
What does the Liga do exactly?
Marc: “Our primary aim is to fund cancer research, to motivate scientists to go even further, especially when they are innovating on new projects. Secondly, we represent the cancer community to the government. This means working on behalf of the clinics and the many care organisations that deal with patients who are cancer survivors. Thirdly, we have to prevent cancer in the first place. There is an overconsumption of ‘bad’ foods and a lack of exercise amongst the general public. Finally, we need to fund our own research. The Liga is a big fundraising machine, and we collect many millions of euros every year. Fortunately, much of our money comes from wills and donations, and we encourage that. It should be stressed, though, that this money funds the bulk of the cancer research done in this country and that the government actually gives just a small percentage of what is needed. The fact that the general public supply the money is a good thing, as then they get a say in what actually happens with it. It’s clear when we go and see the Minister of Health on these matters that he knows we represent a large majority of the general public.”
The biennial Kom op tegen Kanker anti-cancer campaign has become one of the most important fundraising events in Flanders.
Marc: “The Kom op tegen Kanker brand is a strong one, and the emotional resonance it has in this country is important. The government knows this and understands that it has to take our concerns seriously. Our job is to positively influence how cancer patients are treated, and challenge everything in society that is not acceptable.”
Where or who do you get your energy and inspiration from?
Marc: “Well, right now it’s Stéphane Hessel, the author of ‘Indignez-vous’. This 93-year-old Frenchman was a resistance fighter who says that outrage was the reason he fought in the first place, and talks about how he feels that indifference today is the worst of attitudes. He is a fighter for the good cause by refusing to accept the status quo. This fighting spirit is something that I admire and want to emulate. Everything can be improved, and our job – my job as CEO – is to make sure that no stone is left unturned in the fight against cancer and in improving the quality of life of those who suffer from the disease. More money is one aspect, especially as we have a host of projects that deserve more funding, but equally the aim is to keep research scientists at the top of their game by getting them to look for new solutions that haven’t been thought of yet.”
Vlaamse Liga tegen Kanker (Flemish League against Cancer)
The Vlaamse Liga tegen Kanker is not to be confused with the Stichting tegen Kanker, the Belgian Cancer Foundation. Marc: “We work together and have similar objectives, and the main focus for both of us is to raise awareness (and money) for scientific and psychosocial research.”
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