On the 10th of September I had the chance to be invited by Montblanc to a special exhibition of some of the most exquisite Limited Editions created by the Hamburg-based Maison. On this occasion I also had the chance to listen to a creative speech by Alessandra Elia, Director of the Writing Culture Section of Montblanc, where she explained how these editions are designed, conceptualised and created under her supervision, with a team of great individuals at Montblanc.
Right from the moment I had the pleasure to talk to Alessandra I realised what a humble, creative and passionate power-woman she is. The kind of person you want to listen to when it comes to Writing Instruments. After having the honour of shooting a Video with her at the Montblanc Event (you can find it here), I asked if we could set up a Zoom Call for an Interview on inkstable.com a week later. With her kind and open attitude she immediately accepted and I am really glad to share this with all of you. It is perhaps one of the greatest insights we have ever got into the creation of Montblanc Writing Instruments.
Dear Alessandra, I am sure our readers are very curious to know what exactly does a “Director of Category Management Writing Culture” do?
I like to use the term “Chef d’Orchestre”. I manage a team of very talented and creative people. The interesting thing is that there is a great mix between people that work at Montblanc since decades and other people who are new to the company and bring some fresh energy. The mix is definitely the key. If i can name someone, for example, Claudia Zumpe, the Head of Limited Editions, is literally a living Encyclopaedia of everything that has ever been created at Montblanc. Persons like her are very important because for each new Edition we create we want to carry on the brand’s heritage, and there is no future without a great knowledge of the past. We want to treasure this heritage and it is really great to have with us people who have been in the company for a long time and people who are, so called, “fresh blood”.
My team basically oversees all the processes and we work with all stakeholders, starting from the designers up until the financial department. Overall there is an incredible team work to make the Editions happen and it is what make us so proud about what we are doing.
Our work includes pretty much everything that is Writing Instruments, from the Starwalker line to the High Artistry line. We also manage the accessories and licensing business of the Maison.
It is now three years since you work at Montblanc. Before that, you had important positions at companies like P&G, Burberry, L’Occitane. I mentioned this to you when we were in Zurich, but I find it quite interesting to speak to someone who had positions in total different industries than the Pen Industry. How do you bring the inputs you got from those industries into the world of fine Writing Instruments?
There are big differences but also big synergies and that is quite a paradox. For example, when working in the cosmetic industry you have to focus on one big idea. The message needs to be straight forward, because when in a store as a brand you are in the middle of many other products and other strong brands and you only have a few seconds to draw a client’s attention to your product. I would say that with Writing Instruments it is fascinating, because it is totally different. The storytelling around the product is extremely rich becomes so important and even an essential key to the development of the products. The more you have to say, the more the client gets excited about the product.
When it comes to synergies, there is a lot in the technical product development aspects, because the cosmetics industry is a high volume industry driving an incredible Research & Development of materials, technology and overall innovation. This technical development is similar to our Writing Instruments core business. So on some extents it is really different, but on other extents it is quite similar.
What kind of positioning do Writing Instrument have in a Digital World in your opinion?
I get this question quite often and I think that the two worlds are extremely complementary and probably even enhanced by each other. To give you an example, on the day I was in Zurich there was a very young collector, in his 20’s, telling me that handwriting brings a break in the hectic world we live in. Another client once told me: “it’s like my soul pouring out on paper”. I think people are seeking alternatives to digitalisation that give joy and intensity to their everyday life. People really enjoy even more the tactical feeling of an analog experience.
How does it feel to work in a company that is the undisputed leader of the industry?
We want to be very humble about the fact that we are the “leaders” of the industry. What is amazing about it is the fact that it unleashes us from fear. Being the most important brand of the industry somehow allows us to be crazy and to fulfill our creativity completely.
When we work on a new Edition it’s extremely inspiring to see how much creativity there can be behind one of the releases of Montblanc, and this would never pass in an environment of fast moving consumer goods. In industries like the cosmetics, new projects are often labeled as “too risky” or with a feedback like “nobody has ever done this”. At Montblanc we want to be crazy and we dare to be crazy. We want to create a high level of surprise and astonishment when the client sees a new piece. We really look for the “Wow-effect”.
Personally I describe this fearless approach as the ultimate sign of creativity freedom. This is my motivation and this is the motivation of my team.
One thing I am always extremely curious about when I talk to creatives is: where do you take your inspiration from?
It is literally everywhere. It can be from a conversation with a passionate person from another industry and it is probably the reason why some of my dinners end up being pretty much interviews.
But it can also be while watching a movie or when entering an art exhibition. Creativity hits you when you don’t expect it.
Probably is the best way to find creativity is not to proactively seek for it. My days are pretty packed and thinking of scheduling a creative session would not really work between a meeting and the other.
Once I have a brief in my head and go off to live my life, creativity comes to me, and it doesn’t really work when I am seeking for it. I would call it a wild animal. You need to let your mind free for the ideas to come back to you.
If you could tell me one thing, related to the products that enhances the conception of the edition, what would it be?
Symbolism. Each edition is often started around a symbol and then developed around it. Catching the essence of a story around a symbol often helps people understand what an edition is about.
If give you an example, with the Montblanc Arthur Conan Doyle we built the edition around the loupe and that is how we articulated the story and even the design around the edition. A symbol is a door into the story we are trying to tell with our Writing Instruments.
What does it feel like to see a customer that holds, buys or appreciates one of the creations your team has been in charge of? What kind of emotion is it?
It’s extremely rewarding. There is a sparkle in the eyes of a customer that is very similar to the one we have while we create it. When you start presenting an edition and they start falling in love with it, it is pretty much like when you see a person looking at another one and you can simply see that they are falling in love. Seeing this kind of emotion for one of our creations is a reward for years of work, during which our team faced challenges and deep creative processes.
On a more personal note, are you more of a Fountain Pen user or do you use other kinds of Writing Instruments?
Let’s put it this way, it really depends on the occasion. On my desk you will always find a nice Fountain Pen because it is the supreme writing experience. But when I am running fast on daily meetings I do often use a Rollerball as it is very reliable for some occasions.
But when I am involved into some more creative things, or when I have time to write down important notes then I will definitely pick a Fountain Pen. So let’s say it this way: When possible, always a Fountain Pen, when in a rush, then a Rollerball or even a Ballpoint. I do have some great options thanks to my work. (we both laughed)
What makes Montblanc such a special Brand when it comes to Writing Instruments?
I am pretty sure it is the expertise of the people inside the company. While we think it is important to bring an innovative and young point of view, there is a group of people in this company that are the pillar of Montblanc’s knowledge in Writing Instruments. Whenever we have a challenge there is that old guard with their experience that brings up their know-how to help overcome certain challenges. That is something that you cannot buy in this industry and that is simply part of the heritage of Montblanc. Several people that are now directors started at Montblanc as apprentices decades ago. They are an intrinsic part of Montblanc’s heritage.
My last question to you Alessandra is about the Mantra of Montblanc “What moves you, makes you”. What moves you?
It is without any doubt Creativity. Without creativity I would be lost. In my work there is an important part that is business related, but without creativity everything would be in vain. The feeling I get in my stomach when we are in the process of establishing and creating is what keeps me alive. There are probably some professions I could do, but if creativity was missing in my job then I would be switched off. Creativity is what animates me, what motivates me and inspires me every day.
Thank you so much for your time Alessandra as well as for sharing your knowledge and passion with us in such a humble and open way.